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Nonviolent social movements are collective, organized, and sustained attempts to promote social change through methods of nonviolent action. That is, through actions that occur outside of conventional politics, but do not involve violence or the threat of violence against the opponent. Such actions include, but are not limited to, protest demonstrations, marches, boycotts, strikes, disruption, and civil disobedience.
Although most social movements concerned with personal transformation, lifestyle, and culture are nonviolent, those concerned with political, social, and economic change that directly challenge the interests of the elite may be violent, nonviolent, or a combination of the two. Of course, any social movement that directly challenges the interests of the elite, whether it is nonviolent or violent, may be met with violence.
Methods of nonviolent action have been used in struggles against oppression sporadically throughout history; however it was Mohandas Gandhi who was most influential in identifying nonviolent resistance as a unique form of struggle with power different from violence. Prior to Gandhi, people turned to methods of nonviolent action because their moral or religious beliefs prevented them from using violence, because they lacked the means of violence, or because nonviolent actions were simply part of the repertoire of contention that people spontaneously drew from when conflicts arose. Gandhi, however, was crucial in transforming nonviolent resistance into a conscious, reflective, and strategic method of struggle. During the first half of the twentieth century, Gandhi forged a strategy of collective nonviolent resistance during struggles against racism in South Africa and imperialism in India.
Increasingly over the course of the twentieth century, nonviolent social movements were organized and implemented. Although many of these movements were not Gandhian in a strict sense, they implemented mass-based methods of nonviolent action and many of them drew inspiration from Gandhi’s example. Major episodes of twentieth century nonviolent resistance include the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. that challenged racial discrimination in the US South (1955-68); numerous protest movements in more developed countries in the late 1960s -exemplified by the student and anti-Vietnam war movements in the USA and Australia, and the student-led insurrection in France in 1968; and a wave of unarmed insurrections” throughout the ”second” and ”third” worlds from 1978 into the twenty-first century that challenged non-democratic regimes, including those in Iran, South Africa, Chile, the Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal, Burma, China, and Ukraine. Nonviolent social movements, beginning with the Solidarity movement in Poland in the early 1980s, contributed to the toppling of communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Moreover, these struggles contributed to the breakup of the Soviet empire and the end of the cold war.
Various issue-related social movements have been almost exclusively nonviolent. Women’s movements have adopted nonviolent action as both a tactical choice and a framing element, and have cultivated a social critique of violence – from domestic violence to war making. Labor movements have historically depended on methods of noncooperation, especially the strike, to force concessions from capitalists and the state. The new social movements” that emerged in western industrialized countries after World War II, such as the environmental and peace movements, have been almost exclusively nonviolent.
- Ackerman, P. & DuVall, J. (2000) A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict. St. Martin’s Press, New York.
- Burrowes, R.J. (1996) The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.
- Sharp, G. (1973) The Politics of Nonviolent Action, 3 vols. Porter Sargent Publishers, Boston, MA.