Nonviolence as a constructive force
By Jørgen Johansen, PADRIGU and Transcend
The 20th century is the most violent period in the history of mankind. More people have suffered and more people have been
killed by organised violence than in any other similar epoch ever. The hundreds of wars, the genocides, the weapons of mass
destruction (WMD) and the unjust distribution of wealth have created such an enormous mass of misery and agony that there is
difficult to find traces of hope for the future. I will in the following try to describe the few, but important, insights and seeds of
hope we can observe by the turn of the century. I will do so by taking the position that there is empirical evidence from the last
two decades for a growing trust in nonviolent means in the struggle for political, social, economical and religious aims. In the
large majority of these examples there is obviously what Gandhi called "Nonviolence of the weak" we have seen in action. The
pragmatic use of nonviolence as a substitute for arms is, in my view, a large step in a positive direction. In a few of these cases
we have also witnessed a growing interest in what we with a gandhian term would call "constructive work". I will finally look at
some of the present possibilities for the spreading of successful nonviolent struggles.
Trends in armed conflicts
In recent years, especially since the end of the cold war, we have seen an decreasing number of wars between states and a
growing number of wars within states. The large majority of the present wars are in the category of civil wars. These wars have
dominated the image of wars presented by media. Most of them are, at least on the surface, much more complex than the
traditional conflicts between states. The number of interests involved in these conflicts are normally higher than ten and it is not
easy to identify "the good guys" and "the bad ones". One reason for this difficulty is that all parties use violent and armed means
to achieve their goals. The consequences for the civil population are so devastating that it is difficult to see their hopefully "good
intentions". The number of civilian victims in percentage of the total number of casualties have been growing enormously since
the beginning of this century. In most modern wars more than 80% of the killed ones are civilians, not soldiers. In comparison
only 5% of those who died in the First World War were civilians.
New states being born
The world community has in the recent hundred years been in a process of dividing states into smaller units. When the First
World War broke out the number of independent states in the world were around forty. Today the number is close to 200.
Leaving aside the parallel process of regionalism, I will in the following focus on the process of new states being born. Since
almost all territory in the world was divided between states more than hundred years ago, the only way for new states to get
access to territory is by splitting old states. The process of de-colonisation is one example of such a process. When the African
colonies got their independence they got control over the territory mainly by armed struggle. The military means used also came
to characterise the new states. In short, and with a few exceptions, we can say that they all became one-party communist
regimes with a strong militaristic structure. The means used "contaminated" the new states. And this for quite obvious reasons.
The best military leaders, who were capable to gain victory over the colonial forces, were raised and better trained as
professional officers than as democratic leaders. Their way of thinking, their language and their skills were not the best ones for
creating a new democratic, open, multi-party state.
Nations becoming states
Without defining a "nation" in detail I will in the following use that term for a unit of people who feel enough unity to demand
large autonomy and eventually a state by their own. The most common identities for nations are based on ethnicity, language,
religion and political beliefs or combinations of these. I am well aware of the relatively few examples of nations who does not
have any territorial claims, but will focus on those who put the demand for political control of territory high up on their list of
demands. Of those close to two hundred states we have in the world today, only around twenty can be called nationstates. By
nationstates I mean a state with only one nation within its borders. The rest have two or more nations, or parts of nations, within
their territory. In the world as a whole there are at least two thousand nations large enough to be a separate state. Obviously not
all of these have expressed ambition to create their own state. These figures are more to present the potential conflicts for the
Let me present one comment on the terminology: In most academic works the word WAR have been defined by using different
calculations of the numbers of deaths as a consequence of armed conflicts. Some count only those who are dying on the
battlefields, other includes all who dies as a consequence of the conflict. But they all have in common that they looks at war as
"an armed conflict with XX numbers of casualties..". I will oppose all of these different definitions by arguing that war is NOT a
type of conflict. War is one, of several, means used to influence a conflict. By defining war as a type of conflict you risk to
conceal the actual conflict from the means used to influence it. A result of that will be that the other options to influence the
conflict will be more difficult to see. All those ways to use nonviolent means will never be considered in the same context. The
factual conflicts can be identical, for example incompatible demands on a territory, but the means used by one or more of the
involved parties can be non-belligerent and as a consequence the numbers of deaths few or none. My conclusion is that it is of
immense importance to separate the conflict itself from the means used to influence it. In order to judge the means separate
from the conflict you need to define war as a mean not a type of conflict. How often have we not realised that we have
sympathy with the aims, but not with means in a conflict!
Trends in creations of new states
This paper will have its main emphasis on the means used in the creation of new states or revolutionary means used to take
power in an existing state. The equal important question on the actual result of the struggles will not be discussed in the same
depth. My coming research will focus on that, but I cannot present any results today. With the, very important, exception of
India most liberation movements up to the mid seventies used mainly armed and violent means in their struggles for
independence. In quite a few cases the violent means were mixed with nonviolent ones. I sincerely believe that there still are a
lot of unknown examples of nonviolent activities in many of the independence struggles in this century. One reason for not
knowing about them are the lack of interest and skills in these means from the authors of history books and from the vast
majority of journalists who have been reporting from these struggles. But despite these obstacles we have seen a growing
number of nonviolent means being reported the last two to three decades. I believe that these observations reflect both a
increasing awareness of the nonviolent means used and a growing number of successful examples of these means.
When the shah of Iran were forced to leave the country in 1979 it was after a relatively short period of revolutionary uprising
initiated by the religious leaders. The most extraordinary about the process was not the extreme short period from the start to the
old leadership gave up, but the means used by those who demanded a change. Against the modern army, the secret police
(SAVAK) and the well equipped ordinary police-forces the opposition had tried for many years to challenge the secular state
with armed resistance and guerrilla warfare. Around 1977 the opposition started to organise a resistance movement centred
around Khomeini who lived in exile. Khomeini sent tapes of instructions from France; these were copied, distributed, and played
in mosques around the country. He provided explicit instructions, calling for strikes, boycotts, demonstrations and
noncooperations. All well-known nonviolent means used by other groups around the world, but not in a context like this and
with such rapid results. In the Iranian revolution the overthrowing of the old regime happened relatively quick and with a result
very close to the goals of those who demanded a change in the state-system. The fact that they were met by violence and arms
did not prevent the demonstrators from going on with their nonviolent actions.
In many ways the Iranian revolution set a new trend for successful revolutions in the coming two decades. The next actor on the
scene is Solidarity in Poland. After two centuries of armed upraising the polish workers in 1980 tried to fight the regime with
non-armed means. In August 1980 industrial strikes occurred in several part of the country. Starting in the shipyards in Gdansk
the strikes spread to many sectors and cities in the country. The scope of the protests and the lack of violence created a situation
where the government was forced to start negotiations with the newly formed free Trade Unions. By the end of the fall close to
10 million people in a total population of 35 million joined the protests. The unions created a multitude of diverse forums for free
expression of opinions. Early in 1981 the new unions were declared illegal and forced to go underground. The underground
Solidarity created a rich variety of nonviolent actions. One year later they were back on the streets again and went on with their
activities. This is not the place to write an extended history of the Solidarity Movement; those who want to read more can find
good literature on the subject in the literature list in the end of this article. I just want to remind the reader about the large
number of negotiations with a wide variety of parties which took place in 1989 and resulted in a new regime in Poland.
One of the other early examples is from Bolivia. After five general strikes with increasing participation the generals had to step
down in 1982 and give the governmental power to those who won the elections 1980. The nonviolent mobilisation started 1977
with three women from the mining-districts started a hungerstrike in the capital La Paz. The well known women Domitila
Barrios de Chungra joined them and soon many activities around the country followed. Bolivia is not well known for nonviolent
resistance, but there is a lot of interesting parallels to Poland. In both cases the workers organisations cooperated with the
farmers unions and generated a strong coalition which decided to use nonviolent means. The armed tradition from Che Guevara
turned out to be less effective and popular than the strikes, demonstrations and boycotts.
Philippines People Power
In February 1986 popular uprisings took place at military camps in Quezon City, the capital of Philippines. President Ferdinand
Marcos met serious opposition after thirteen years of martial law. Marcos felt confident that he would win and announced
presidential elections. Corazon Aquino, wife of the late Benigo Aquino ran against him under the banner LABAN, an acronym
for Lakas ng Bayan ("Power of the People". Marcos used fraud to win and several of the government's tabulators walked out in
protest. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines issued a document that was read from pulpits throughout the nation.
They declared that the people had a duty to resist, nonviolently. Later parts of the armed forces declared that Mrs. Aquino was
the true winner of the elections. Massive demonstrations in yellow t-shirts started to run around in the capital to support Mrs.
Aquino. By the end of February Marcos fled the country and Corazon Aquino took her place as the Philippines' legally elected
By the year 1989 the Communist regimes in six Eastern and Central Europe countries met nonviolent movements which
undermined their one-party system. That is Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. During
the year to come free multiparty elections were held. Many similarities can be seen in these events. Popular movements used
nonviolent means to put pressure on their political leadership and Soviet Union hesitated to come to the aid of the Communist
establishments. All countries found themselves in a difficult situation and were not able to cope with the situations. The lack of
violence from the protesters seems to have been something they had serious difficulties in handling. They had trained their police
and military troops to handle violent uprisings, but had not much preparation for non-armed demonstrators. The "CNN-effect"
had a great impact on their restrictions in considering the use of brute force. With international television cameras following
almost every step the demonstrators took the political cost of hard repression became much higher than they could afford.
This is not the place to present detailed case-studies of these events, but I want to mention that there will be a great
misinterpretation of what happened to only focus on the civil resistance and nonviolent means. These aspects are some of the
most important and necessary elements, but they are not sufficient to explain what happened. Although I would like to present a
thesis; namely that the means used had an important impact on the process as well as the outcome of the revolutions in East and
Central Europe. To what degree and in what way the means influenced the outcome and the way the revolutions took place is
still to be investigated. In what way would the result have been different if the people had used more violent means? For me this
is a very important job to be done in the coming years.
The dividing of Soviet Union
Of the eighty-nine republics in former Soviet Union the three Baltic ones gained independence first. In Estonia as well as
Lithuania and Latvia the popular movements working for autonomy decided to use nonviolent means. Even when the Soviet
armed forces took to weapons to prevent the demonstrators from gaining their goals they kept to the nonviolent discipline. An
important factor in these vases was the political pressure on Soviet from other European countries and demonstrations in favour
of the Baltic movements in Sweden and other friendly states.
The independence of Belarus and Ukraine were achieved at the negotiation table
When Chechnya fought for the same rights they took to arms and fought a regular war against the Russian forces. The war
ended after very bloody struggles and devastating damage with a cease-fire but no resolution to the conflict. Both parts decided
to wait for five years to decide on the future status of Chechnya.
The dividing of Czechoslovakia
The peaceful transformation of Czechoslovakia from one state to two states took place around negotiating tables. The difficult
sharing of common resources were done after long discussions and with a great deal of understanding from both sides. None of
the parties involved used the threats of force to put pressure on the other. In both parts of the former Czechoslovakia those who
wanted to split the country saw the nonviolent option as the only effective one. This is not the way most other countries have
been created. This is a sign of a qualitative new way of thinking.
Other political and social movements
Many of the large-scale struggles in the world the last three decades have used a mixture of armed and nonviolent means. In
some cases they have changed strategy over time or they have combined different forms of struggle.
In addition to the above mentioned examples we have witnessed the mainly peaceful transformation of South Africa from a
regime of Apartheid to a multiparty society with extended democratic laws. Even if African National Congress (ANC) had a
small branch of armed struggle, the overwhelming part of their struggle used nonviolent means.
When the struggle by ANC resulted in a relatively peaceful transformation to democracy in 1994 it was after a long, hard and
difficult period with mainly nonviolent means. In the eyes of the oppressive regime the few and not very successful examples of
violent actions used by ANC justified the use of violent means against every black person in the whole country. On the level of
physical force the state was superior and the apartheid regime argued that they had to use violence to prevent the "terrorists"
from destroying the country. The large majority of actions in the anti-apartheid-struggle were conducted nonviolently. The many
strikes, demonstrations and protests were met with brute force from police and military troops but in most cases the activist kept
their nonviolent strategy. The freedom struggle in South Africa was dominated by nonviolent actions and they played a vital role
in the development of the new state.
One very important aspect with the ANC struggle is the long-term training of personnel who could play important roles after the
liberation. In exile they trained people who should be able to take over positions in the new administration, education system and
other important jobs. They were able to build up a group of people who could prepare the take-over and make plans for the first
period. The decision to include parts of the former white government in the new ANC-led government showed the need and will
to build the new country together. The constructive will showed to be stronger than revenge and hate. Another sign of this
attitude was the Truth-Commission to deal with the violations of humans committed during the apartheid-period. That the
commission also took up crimes by ANC-activists emphasis this willingness to be constructive in the building of the new socitey.
Palestine Liberation Organisation
After a long period of armed struggle against Israel the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) decided to change their strategy
and introduced the Intifada in 1987. The new concept included a wide spectre of nonviolent methods such as protests, strikes
and boycotts, but also more sophisticated means such as noncooperations, civil disobedience and the creation of alternative
institutions. The media focused mainly on young males throwing stones on Israeli soldiers, but that created a misguiding view on
what was going on. The creation of underground economical systems, schools and political bodies combined with the nonviolent
means in the confrontations with Israel made PLO a possible counterpart in the negotiations about the future of the Palestinian
people. The Oslo-agreement would not happened if PLO had kept to the former strategy of armed struggle.
Kosov@ and Rugova
In Kosov@ the struggle for independence of autonomy have gone through several phases. Under the leadership of Rugova the
Albanian kosovars took a very strong nonviolent line in their struggle against the Serbian leadership. Rugova explicitly said that
he was inspired by Gandhi and wanted to follow his methods of liberation. That line gained a lot of support by the Albanians and
Rugova was elected as president with an overwhelming majority in the underground elections. The Serbian regime prevented
Albanians in Kosov@ from living a normal life by separating them in an apartheid-like system. Under Rugova the resistance
movement build up a parallel society with underground schools, health institutions, political organisations, culture and media. For
a time the Albanians and the Serbs lived on the same territory but in separate societies.
With little support from the international community Rugova had few successes to show his supporters and the disappointment
grew over his nonviolent strategy. In 1997 the UCK guerrilla showed up and soon they became popular and started their
warfare. When these lines are written NATO have just ended their bomb-attack and it is difficult to predict anything about the
future of Kosov@.
Above I have shortly described some of the examples of regimes being removed by nonviolent means. We do not have any
answer on the question why these struggles used these means. Neither do we know for sure that the results have been different
because of the means did not include violent means. What we know is that an increasing number of large scale conflicts have
been fought with mainly nonviolent means the last decades. It is in most cases a very pragmatic use of nonviolence and have
nothing to do with pacifism or a different attitude towards other human beings.
When Gandhi talked about "Nonviolence of the Strong" and "Nonviolence of the Weak" he made a very important point. The
connection between means and ends are probably much more evident when we study "Nonviolence of the Strong" than in other
cases. What has to be done if we wants to influence the many thousands who today takes the logical step from arms to
nonviolent techniques to take one more step: To start developing a strategy for "nonviolence for the strong".
In my classes in Scandinavia I prefer to use the terms "Nonviolent techniques" and "Nonviolent Lifestyle" to be more political
correct than with the biased terms "Strong" and "Weak". A technique we know how to teach, but what about a lifestyle? I think
that good knowledge and experience in the use of the techniques can saw a seed, which has the potential to grow into a lifestyle.
Combined with historical case-studies, deep discussions, philosophical studies and "experiments with truth" the seed can grow to
the wide and strong tree which symbolise a lifestyle. We need to critically and open-minded study the many examples of
nonviolence used in the world today. The conclusions must be widely known and we have to continuously set up "Pro et
Contra-lists" for these means. An ongoing lively discussion among researchers, practitioners and activists must me combined
with an extensively effort to put nonviolence on the agenda on every political meeting, in every classroom and in every social
movement. In the same way as we have seen the development of a "deep ecology movement" we need to transform the shallow
nonviolence techniques into a "deep nonviolence" lifestyle.
This work needs to be done by those who clearly see the difference between techniques and lifestyle. In other words: By those
who have an deep understanding of the gandhian principles and the philosophy of nonviolence. Those ideas, concepts and
experiments Gandhi developed around the turn of the last century needs vitalisation when we are taking the first steps into the 21
century. To develop a modern concept of "deep nonviolence" we need to analyse the experiments from this century and
understand the connection between means and ends. The popular formula that there is a causal connection between means and
ends are probably more complex than we think. When the religious opposition in Iran started the non-armed revolution against
the Shah, the result was not a typical nonviolent society. They were able to take power, but little of their nonviolent techniques
were seen in the state they created. We need to carefully examine all cases of nonviolent means, not only those who fit into our
models and popular concepts.
The connection between means and ends is a field who have got very little attention by peace-researchers and those engaged in
conflict resolution. For me it is obvious that there is a need for deeper and more extensive studies in this area. Those who have
been studying development theories have not paid much attention to the means used in social conflicts, the peace-researchers
have been more focused on wars and armed conflicts and in the area of conflict resolution the most interesting studies have been
on short-term results. Few have tried to develop theories and models for the whole concept from conflict and means to the
long-term results. I think that more cross-science studies in these areas will help us to understand these processes and to develop
new knowledge in these areas. For me personally it is obvious that studies of Gandhi and his experiments will be an essential part
of such research.
When entering into the 21 century the humanity have more experiences of nonviolent means in large scale conflicts than ever
before. To be able to learn from all these examples it is necessary to start intensive studies of these conflicts and the means used
to influence them. If we want the increasing use of nonviolent techniques to develop further and include more "constructive
work" there is an enormous task in front of us. The understanding of these complex contexts of means and ends must be made
available for all those who today, and in the future, are searching for ways to empower themselves, who are searching for ways
to improve their life-situation and for the increasing number of scholars who are engaged in conflict resolution and development
About the author:
Jørgen Johansen have been active in the peace-movement for 30 years. He has been travelling extensively around the world and
worked in a wide variety of conflicts. From 1991 to 1998 he was the chair of War Resisters' International and are for moment
teacher in Conflict Handling and Peace Work at PADRIGU (Peace and Development Research Institute, Gotenburg University),
Sweden. He is working on a PhD on "Nonviolent Means" and are actively working with Transcend. Transcend International is a
network of invited scholars-practitioners working for peace and development by peaceful means through action, training,
research, dissemination. He has published several books on anti-militarism, nonviolence, civil disobedience and social defence.
Johansen has also published a large number of articles in movement magazines.