Nonviolent Social Defense

[Chapter Five of Thinking Green! By Petra Kelly]

Nonviolent Social Defense

“People try nonviolence for a week, and when it ‘doesn’t work,’ they go back to violence which hasn’t worked for centuries.” – Theodore Roszak

Young people are our future. It is they who can become peacemakers in their lives and develop a nonviolent future. We must encourage them to study peace and to challenge the military-industrial complex that continues to push us into wars and ever-expanding military budgets. The study of peace analyzes the cause of war, violence, and systematic oppression, and explores the processes by which conflict and change can be managed in order to maximize justice and minimize violence. Peace studies encompass the fields of economics, politics, history, political science, physics, ethics, philosophy, and religion at the local as well as global levels, showing how much culture, ideology, and technology relate to conflict and change.

War, peace, and justice are the most critical issues we face today, and they must receive the highest priority. It is important that students debate peace issues and design research projects on how to conclude arms control treaties, how to initiate steps toward unilateral disarmament, and how to protect human rights wherever they are violated. We will not find an instant solution to the nearly half-century of nuclear buildup, so we must make a sustained effort to undertake peace research, action research, and analysis.

Peace studies should also touch the spirituality of politics, talking about the problems of poverty, oppression, and the nature of war, and offering alternatives to war, militarism, and deterrence. Peace studies programs can help develop, through action and research, practical methods for the nonviolent resolution of conflicts, including civilian-based defense and social defense. It should also discuss Third World development, ecological planning, human rights, social movements, and grassroots movements. A peace studies programs should convey the development of the civil rights and antiwar movements and evaluate the powerful effects of these movements. Students who become involved in looking for nonviolent solutions to military conflicts are on the way to becoming true peacemakers. We need many students to become peacemakers if we want to have hope for the future.

Human dignity is a fundamental value in peace education. Innovative learning to prepare people to act conscientiously in situations in which issues of right and wrong are at stake is sorely needed. This means moving away from the emphasis on competition, achievement, strength, power, profit, and productivity. Peace studies must guide students toward active global citizenship and solving conflicts nonviolently, and must help them acquire the capacity to confront changes and use their personal influence to bring about positive change. Peace studies can, I hope, become truly peacemaking — helping develop an ethic of reverence for life on this Earth, a planet that has no emergency exit. Improving the human social condition is part of peacemaking. I wish our young students the strength and courage to become real peacemakers. The immense task of students and educators is no less than the survival of our planetary home.

“Wars will end when people refuse to fight,” expresses the Green approach to peace. The cornerstone of this approach is unilateral disarmament. It is a completely new concept of foreign policy, breaking with the spurious logic of the balance of power and the limits of diplomatic exchange which leads to continual militarism. To embark on a unilateral, nonaligned, and actively neutral departure from the entire military system is to initiate a policy of nonthreatening conduct essential for any real security or peace.

We Greens want to create the conditions for this new way to peace that is completely without the use of military force. Almost everyone in the world thinks that deterrence thinking, stereotypes of the enemy, and belief in the inevitability of war are the only practical ways of operating. But the abolition of arms, too, can become the norm in international affairs. A disarmed society need not be defenseless. Civilian-based social defense is an alternative to the self-destructive militarism that has been tried again and again and has only brought us more and more suffering. It is time for a fresh new approach, one that is studied and documented and not just naive.

One of the most important advocates of civilian-based defense is Gene Sharp, of the Albert Einstein Institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Professor Sharp has studied nonviolent defense worldwide, and has seen that this is a practical and effective strategy, based on the recognition that power derives, first and foremost, from the consent of the governed. Civilian-based defense depends on the highly skilled, coordinated resistance of citizens.

During the summer of 1968, when nonviolent citizens in Prague were resisting the occupying Soviet forces, my grandmother and I were there in a hotel near Wenceslaus Square, under house arrest. Even after Dubcek and his close associates were arrested, the people remained steadfast in their resistance. Eventually, by threatening indefinite military occupation, the Soviets were able to reassert their authority and delay the reforms of the Prague Spring by twenty-one years. But through their sacrifice and suffering, the people of Czechoslovakia built up a spirit of positive patriotism, and two decades later did indeed succeed in their “Velvet Revolution.” These events demonstrate the power of nonviolent social defense.

Social defense is a way to protect ourselves from foreign invasions or internal coups through active, nonviolent resistance and noncooperation, including economic boycotts by consumers and producers, social and political boycotts of institutions, strikes, overtaking facilities and administrative systems important to the opponent, stalling and obstructing, being deliberately inefficient, ostracizing, influencing occupying troops, and other forms of not complying. Military defense seeks to prevent an enemy from invading by threatening battle losses at the border. Social defense sets an unacceptably high price on staying — ceaseless resistance. It spoils the spoils of war and deprives the aggressor of the fruits of victory. The price of aggression becomes so high that occupation is no longer worth it. The opponent is prevented from attaining their aims and their ability to fight is undermined.

Social defense is practical and pragmatic. It requires excellent preparation, organization, and training; a courageous, creative, and determined citizenry; and a radical commitment to democratic values. Independent, resourceful, freedom-loving people that are prepared and organized to resist aggression cannot be conquered. No number of tanks and missiles can dominate a society unwilling to cooperate.

In this century, we have seen several examples of the effectiveness of nonviolent social defense. The home-rule movement led by Gandhi mobilized so much grassroots pressure that the British were forced to withdraw from India. The civil rights movement created profound changes in U.S. society. Philippine “people power” overthrew Marcos nonviolently. And in Eastern Europe, it was citizens’ movements, not political or military powers, that toppled the state security systems.

Full demilitarization can only come about in a society in which power is shared at the grassroots. In the nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau called upon free citizens to engage in civil disobedience and nonviolent actions whenever there is an injustice. Civil disobedience and nonviolence are an integral part of any democratic society. Even in Western democracies, the state seems invincible, and as individuals, we often feel powerless, unable to have much effect. We must remind ourselves that the power of the state derives solely from the consent of the governed. Without the cooperation of the people, the state cannot exist. Even a powerful military state that is nearly invulnerable to violent force can be transformed through nonviolence at the grassroots. Noncooperation, civil disobedience, education, and organization are the means of change, and we must learn the ways to use them. Direct democracies will come into being only when we demand from our leaders that they listen to us. This is fundamental to Green politics. Power is not something that we receive from above. To transform our societies into ones that are peaceful, ecological, and just, we need only to exercise the power we already have.

Like the militaristic mode of defense, social defense demands courage and the willingness to place the interests of the community ahead of individual self-interest, relying as it does on well-organized, tightly bonded affinity groups in every neighborhood prepared to conduct acts of nonviolent resistance on short notice. Every neighborhood must know how to conduct resistance and subversion. This method of democratic security requires little material apparatus but a lot of organization and training.

It is easy to see how economically wasteful, ecologically destructive, immoral, and counter-democratic military defense is, but to criticize militarism is not enough. If we really want to move towards nonviolent societies, we must study and begin to practice some alternatives, and civilian-based defense is the most realistic and effective.

The very fabric of every First World country is woven by militarism. The culture of militarism depends on the use of force. Violence, oppression, and domination are all ways used by the powerful to keep the powerless powerless. In capitalist societies, the social structure depends on the economic exploitation of one group by another, in the form of imperialism abroad and racism at home. Violence is inherent and pervasive, from the nuclear family to the nuclear state.

As long as the world is divided into centralized states in competition for material wealth and political power, war is inevitable, as is the domination of weaker states by stronger ones. SS-20s, Pershing IIs, Tridents, Star Wars “defense” systems, and other weapons do not begin in factories. They begin in our consciousness. We think each other to death. The entire production cycle  — from the allocation of funds, to the mining of uranium, to testing — is killing people. American Indian children playing on their reservation lands are breathing radioactive tailings from the waste piles of uranium mines. The radioactive poisoning of Pacific Islanders is the result of weapons testing by the French government. Every year, while hundreds of billions of dollars go toward preparation for war, seventeen million children under the age of five die of starvation or inadequate medical care.

The destruction of nature, the militarization of the world, and the exploitation of the disenfranchised all kill life and kill the spirit. We “shut down” and not only numb our fear and pain, we also lose touch our own innate spiritual resources — compassion, imagination, and the power to respond. As Joanna Macy points out, it is precisely because of our caring, our compassion, and our recognition of our connectedness with life that the pain of the world is so unbearable.[1] These are the qualities that we need most to bring change and healing to our world. We must reclaim our spiritual power.

Satyagraha, “truth force,” is the word used by Gandhi to describe the spiritual power of nonviolence. Ahimsa, “non-harming,” is a value deeply embedded in the Indian religious outlook that shaped Gandhi’s thought. The power of nonviolence arises from what is deepest and most humane within ourselves and speaks directly to what is deepest and most humane in others. Nonviolence works not through defeating the opponent but by awakening the opponent and oneself through openness. It is not just a tactic — it embraces life. “Nonviolence that merely offers civil resistance to the authorities and goes no further scarcely deserves the name ahimsa,” Gandhi said. “To quell riots nonviolently, there must be true ahimsa in one’s heart, an ahimsa that takes even the erring hooligan in its warm embrace.”[2]

In acknowledging Gandhi’s influence, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made this point: “I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationships. The ‘turn the other cheek’ philosophy and the ‘love your enemies’ philosophy were only valid, I felt, when individuals were in conflict with other individuals; when racial groups and nations were in conflict, a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was. Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.”[3] Nonviolence extends moral thought beyond individuals and their immediate communities to include the whole of society. It takes the initiative in opposing existing systems of domination and privilege and addresses the problem of structural violence and the task of structural change.

Faith that we have a natural disposition to love, that we are possessed of moral conscience, and that all life is sacred, are at the foundation of nonviolent action, and we can see their power in practical application. The political techniques of nonviolence — noncooperation, civil disobedience, grassroots organizing, fasting, and so forth — derive their power from the faith and confidence that through the integrity and self-sacrifice of our actions, we can awaken our opponent’s conscience and bring about a change of heart. Gandhi was uniquely creative in applying nonviolence as an effective force for political and social change. For him, nonviolence was always active, powerful, and dynamic, and had nothing to do with passivity or acceptance of wrongful conditions. He acknowledged the influence of the nineteenth century Indian women’s movement in the development of his approach. Because women’s contributions to nonviolence are often unrecognized, this influence is especially encouraging.  He was also directly influenced by Jesus’ gospel of love and the writings of Tolstoy, Emerson, and Thoreau.

Violence always leads to more violence, hatred to greater hatred. Nonviolence works through communion, never through coercion. We must win over, not defeat, our opponent through openness, dialogue, patience, and love. Our real opponent is not a human enemy, but a system and way of thinking that give some people the power to oppress. Each struggle is part of a larger vision, one of building a society dedicated to the welfare of all. Gandhi felt that India could only become healthy with strong, politically autonomous, economically self-reliant villages. He was critical of industrialism for dehumanizing workers, splitting society into classes, and taking work from humans and giving it to machines. And he saw that any centralized production system requires a state that is restrictive of individual freedom. To him, the spinning wheel represented the dignity of labor, self-sufficiency, and humility needed to guide the people of India in the work of social transformation. Gandhi’s influence runs deep in the Green movement. Satyagraha and all it implies have inspired and informed our vision of nonviolent change.

All forms of structural and institutional violence — the arms race, warfare, economic deprivation, social injustice, ecological exploitation, and so forth — are closely linked.

Making their interrelationships clear is essential for moving society in a direction that benefits all, not just the one nation, class, or even species. Militarism and the culture of militarism are extreme and pervasive examples of structural violence, even in times of relative peace. People assume that militarism at least boosts our economies. But defense spending generates fewer jobs than other areas of public spending. “It produces,” as Jesse Jackson has pointed out, “little of utility to our society — no food, no clothes, no housing, no medical equipment or supplies. In short, nothing of social or redemptive value.”[4] For the cost of just one jet fighter, 3 million children could be inoculated against major childhood diseases. The cost of one nuclear weapons test could provide enough money to give 80,000 Third World villages access to safe water through the installation of hand pumps. Two billion dollars are spent every day on military weapons. Contrasted with the urgent needs of the world’s poor, military expenditures are nothing short of embezzlement.

The ending of the cold war has brought little change in our militaristic outlook. As old weapons systems are dismantled, they are replaced by new, more sophisticated ones. Weapons research and development continues unabated. Militaries, the arms industry, government leaders, and bureaucrats continue to tell citizens that more refined weapons in larger numbers will bring greater security, and sales of arms and weapons technology continue worldwide.

A nation’s policies, values, institutions, and structures comprise the preconditions for violence or for peace. Gandhi said, “Nonviolence is the greatest force mankind has ever been endowed with. Love has more force than a besieging army.” Martin Luther King, Jr. added that this power of love is physically passive but spiritually active — that “while the non-violent resister is passive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive towards his opponent, his mind and his emotions are constantly active, constantly seeking to persuade the opposition.” Nonviolence is a spiritual weapon that can succeed where guns and armies never could. “Democracy can only be saved through nonviolence,” Gandhi said, “because democracy, so long as it is sustained by violence, cannot provide for or protect the weak. My notion of democracy is that under it the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest. This can never happen except through nonviolence.”

Now, when the West has more or less won the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact has completely crumbled and NATO is about to move its borders east, a pragmatic, nonideological approach to social defense must be developed and counterposed to all militaristic policies. We spend billions on weapons research and millions training our young people at military academies. Why not invest in peace studies and peace actions? We need training centers, public campaigns, and educational materials. We need to support groups like Peace Brigades International that intervene nonviolently in situations of conflict. We need to work concretely to realize peace and nonviolence in our time.

We also need to support existing nonviolent struggles, such as those of the Tibetans and the Chinese democracy movement. The public is so often ignorant about these nonviolent campaigns, because bombing oneself into history like the IRA, ETA, and others is what receives media and public attention. We can never give peace a chance if we do not even know about the many peaceful movements already in existence.

There are a few hopeful signs. In 1989, 36 percent of the Swiss population voted against an army, and, though underfunded, small-scale feasibility studies on the same subject were done in Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Austria, and France. I hope that all peace groups will take up the issue of social defense as a main priority. Gandhi said, “Nonviolence is as yet a mixed affair. It limps. Nevertheless, it is there and it continues to work like a leaven in a silent and invisible way, least understood by most. [But] it is the only way.”


[1] Joanna Macy, World as Lover, pp.15-28

[2] Mohandas K. Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Boston: beacon Press, 1957).

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), pp. 96-97

[4] Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Straight from the Heart (Philadelphia: Fortress press, 1987), p. 283.

Posted on May 11, 2013, in Articles and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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