The Power of Nonviolence

March 13, 2016

No political action seems to enjoy greater moral authority than the nonviolent methods Mahatma Gandhi inaugurated more than a century ago. Gandhi’s neologism for nonviolent direct action was satyagraha, which roughly translates to ‘holding fast to truth’.

While this term itself never caught on, in principle or form, nonviolent models of organising protest did. For decades, pro-democracy movements in Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe have conspicuously embraced nonviolent politics to express mass dissent and topple authoritarian governments.

Time and again, activists around the world have turned to mass boycotts, strikes and collective vigils, techniques Gandhi pioneered and practised on the world stage with historic results. More recently, protestors in the Occupy movements and the Arab Spring successfully put to use nonviolent tactics of disruption. Similarly, activists for issues including the environment, corruption, refugee and immigrant rights, racial exclusion and violence are taking up and adapting nonviolent protest to meet new challenges.

This Is an Uprising (2016) by the political analysts Mark and Paul Engler promises to show how nonviolent politics can force political change on the most intractable issues of the day, from climate change to rising inequality.

Nonviolence’s evident authority, however, belies a more chequered history. Over the course of the last century, the popularity and attraction of nonviolent politics has waxed and waned. Its long-term resilience requires explanation and can provide clues to nonviolence’s purpose and power.

Plenty of activists and observers have doubted the effectiveness of nonviolent politics. Suspicions of naiveté and weakness, in particular, have shadowed the history of nonviolence from its very inception. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr, the leading figures of nonviolent politics, both faced criticism along these lines. Skeptics viewed nonviolent methods as timid and sluggish, at best, capable of winning only small reforms. Gandhi and King’s moral commitment to nonviolence was seen to hinder the hard choices necessary for radical change.

The moral superiority of nonviolence is often evoked to condemn violent resistance and discredit unruly activists. States regularly conscript the language of nonviolence in this way, adding to worries that nonviolence carries risks of cooption and compromise. The wars and occupations of the past two decades seem unlikely portents of a new era of nonviolence.

The enthrallment of force and violence seem as overwhelming as ever. And yet the encircling violence – from state violence and increasingly deadly military technology, to global terrorism and asymmetrical warfare – seems to be self-defeating at best, nihilistic at worst. That is, there is little prospect that all this violence has or will achieve its purported ends. This fact – and reckoning with it – holds out the promise of nonviolence.

For both Gandhi and King, transformative politics was a difficult road – full of disappointments and reversals. Lasting change required patience and determination, and nonviolence was the most potent and reliable means for achieving it.

Far from signalling acquiescence, nonviolence was a resolutely active politics. It required the cultivation of disciplined fearlessness and moral courage to face the demands of political action.

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