Nonviolence has two (closely related) meanings. (1) It can refer, first, to a general philosophy of abstention from violence because of moral or religious principle (e.g. "She believes in nonviolence.") (2) It can refer to the behaviour of people using nonviolent action (e.g. "The demonstrators maintained their nonviolence.")[1]

Much of the general philosophy of nonviolence has 'active' or 'activist' elements, in that they accept the need for a means of struggle to achieve political and social change. Thus, for example, the Gandhian ahimsa is a philosophy and strategy for social change that rejects the use of violence, but at the same time sees nonviolent action (also called civil resistance) as an alternative to passive acceptance of oppression or armed struggle against it. In general, advocates of an activist philosophy of nonviolence use diverse methods in their campaigns for social change, including critical forms of education and persuasion, mass noncooperation civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action and social, political, cultural and economic forms of intervention.

Green Party founder Petra Kelly, who founded the Green Party on Nonviolence, with congressman and famed attorney Otto Schily at press conference.

In modern times, nonviolent methods of action have been a powerful tool for social protest and revolutionary social and political change.[2][3][4] There are many examples of their use. Fuller surveys may be found in the entries on civil resistance, nonviolent resistance and nonviolent revolution. Here certain movements particularly influenced by a philosophy of nonviolence should be mentioned, including Mahatma Gandhi leading a decades-long nonviolent struggle against British rule in India, which eventually helped India win its independence in 1947, Martin Luther King's adoption of Gandhi's nonviolent methods in the struggle to win civil rights for African Americans, and César Chávez's campaigns of nonviolence in the 1960s to protest the treatment of farm workers in California.[5] The 1989 "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia that saw the overthrow of the Communist government[6] is considered one of the most important of the largely nonviolent Revolutions of 1989.[7] Most recently the nonviolent campaigns of Leymah Gbowee and the women of Liberia were able to achieve peace after a 14-year civil war.[8] This story is captured in a 2008 documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell. In an essay, "To Abolish War," evolutionary biologist Judith Hand advocated for the use of nonviolent direct action to dismantle the global war machine.[9]

The term "nonviolence" is often linked with or even used as a synonym for pacifism; however, the two concepts are fundamentally different. Pacifism denotes the rejection of the use of violence as a personal decision on moral or spiritual grounds, but does not inherently imply any inclination toward change on a sociopolitical level.

Nonviolence, on the other hand, is most often associated with the intent to achieve social or political change. Indeed, the desire to pursue change effectively may be a reason for the rejection of violence. Also, a person may advocate nonviolence in a specific context while advocating violence in other contexts.[10]

October 2, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi is observed as International Day of Non-Violence.



Advocates of non-violence believe cooperation and consent are the roots of political power: all regimes, including bureaucratic institutions, financial institutions, and the armed segments of society (such as the military and police); depend on compliance from citizens.[11] On a national level, the strategy of nonviolence seeks to undermine the power of rulers by encouraging people to withdraw their consent and cooperation. The forms of nonviolence draw inspiration from both religious or ethical beliefs and political analysis. Religious or ethically based nonviolence is sometimes referred to as principled, philosophical, or ethical nonviolence, while nonviolence based on political analysis is often referred to as tactical, strategic, or pragmatic nonviolence. Commonly, both of these dimensions may be present within the thinking of particular movements or individuals.[12]


Mahavira,To liberate one's self, Mahavira taught the necessity of right faith, right knowledge and right conduct. Right conduct includes five great vows out of which first is Nonviolence (Ahimsa) - to cause no harm to any living being in any manner

Love of the enemy, or the realization of the humanity of all people, is a fundamental concept of philosophical nonviolence. The goal of this type of nonviolence is not to defeat the enemy, but to win them over and create love and understanding between all.[13] According to Mark Kurlansky, "all religions discuss the power of nonviolence and the evil of violence." Such principles or tenets can be found in each of the major Indian religious traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) as well as in the major Abrahamic religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). The Chandogya Upanishad, which is part of the Upanishads, one of the principal scriptures of Hinduism that dates to the 8th or 7th century BCE, bars violence against "all creatures" (sarva-bhuta) and establishes nonviolence as a code of conduct for Hindus.[14] Examples of nonviolence found in religion and spirituality include the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus urges his followers to "love thine enemy," in the Taoist concept of wu-wei, or effortless action, in the philosophy of the martial art Aikido, in the Buddhist principle of metta, or loving-kindness towards all beings; and in the principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence toward any being, shared by Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism.[15] Additionally, focus on both nonviolence and forgiveness of sin can be found in the story of Abel in the Qur'an; liberal movements within Islam have consequently used this story to promote Jewish ideals of nonviolence.[citation needed] Nonviolence is also part of modern pagan traditions.[16] American author Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) had a major impact on the philosophy of nonviolence. Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were influenced by Thoreau.


The fundamental concept of pragmatic (or tactical or strategic) nonviolence is to create a social dynamic or political movement that can effect social change without necessarily winning over those who wish to maintain the status quo.[13]

In modern industrial democracies, nonviolence has been used extensively by political sectors without mainstream political power such as labor, peace, environment and women's movements. Lesser known is the role that nonviolence has played and continues to play in undermining the power of repressive political regimes in the developing world and the former eastern bloc. Susan Ives emphasizes this point by quoting Walter Wink:

"In 1989, thirteen nations comprising 1,695,000,000 people experienced nonviolent revolutions that succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations ... If we add all the countries touched by major nonviolent actions in our century (Korea, the Philippines, South Africa ... the independence movement in India ...), the figure reaches 3,337,400,000, a staggering 65% of humanity! All this in the teeth of the assertion, endlessly repeated,that nonviolence doesn't work in the 'real' world."

Walter Wink, Christian theologian[7]

As a technique for social struggle, nonviolence has been described as "the politics of ordinary people", reflecting its historically mass-based use by populations throughout the world and history. Perhaps the first instance of a nonviolent campaign with major political impact was the March 1 Movement in Korea, which was a catalyst for the establishment of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai in April 1919 and influenced nonviolent resistance in India and many other countries.[17]

Struggles most often associated with nonviolence are the non-cooperation campaign for Indian independence led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the movement to attain civil rights for African Americans, led by Rev. Dr Martin Luther King and James Bevel, and the People Power Revolution in the Philippines.

Also of primary significance is the notion that just means are the most likely to lead to just ends. When Gandhi said that "the means may be likened to the seed, the end to a tree," he expressed the philosophical kernel of what some refer to as prefigurative politics. Martin Luther King, a student of Gandhian nonviolent resistance, concurred with this tenet, concluding that "nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek." Proponents of nonviolence reason that the actions taken in the present inevitably re-shape the social order in like form. They would argue, for instance, that it is fundamentally irrational to use violence to achieve a peaceful society.

People have come to use nonviolent methods of struggle from a wide range of perspectives and traditions. A landless peasant in Brazil may nonviolently occupy a parcel of land for purely practical motivations. If they do not, the family will starve. A Buddhist monk in Thailand may "ordain" trees in a threatened forest, drawing on the teachings of Buddha to resist its destruction. A waterside worker in England may go on strike in socialist and union political traditions. All the above are using nonviolent methods but from different standpoints. Likewise, secular political movements have utilized nonviolence, either as a tactical tool or as a strategic program on purely pragmatic and strategic levels, relying on its political effectiveness rather than a claim to any religious, moral or ethical worthiness.

Gandhi used the weapon of nonviolence against British Raj

Respect or love for opponents also has a pragmatic justification, in that the technique of separating the deeds from the doers allows for the possibility of the doers changing their behavior, and perhaps their beliefs. Martin Luther King said, "Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence, but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him."[citation needed]

Finally, the notion of Satya, or truth, is central to the Gandhian conception of nonviolence. Gandhi saw truth as something that is multifaceted and unable to be grasped in its entirety by any one individual. All carry pieces of the truth, he believed, but all need the pieces of others’ truths in order to pursue the greater truth. This led him to believe in the inherent worth of dialogue with opponents, in order to understand motivations. On a practical level, the willingness to listen to another's point of view is largely dependent on reciprocity. In order to be heard by one's opponents, one must also be prepared to listen.[citation needed]

Nonviolence has obtained a level of institutional recognition and endorsement at the global level. On November 10, 1998, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the first decade of the 21st century and the third millennium, the years 2001 to 2010, as the International Decade for the Promotion of a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World.


For many, practicing nonviolence goes deeper than withholding from violent behavior or words. It means caring in one's heart for everyone, even those with whom one strongly disagrees. For some, this principle entails a commitment to restorative or transformative justice and prison abolition. By extrapolation comes the necessity of caring for those who are not practicing nonviolence, who are violent. Of course no one can simply will themselves to have such care, and this is one of the great personal challenges posed by nonviolence - once one believes in nonviolence in theory, how can the person live it? It requires an opening of the heart and mind to all of existence, and a deep love for all that is. Because we are all interconnected, to love oneself is to love everyone; to hate another is to hate oneself. Because violence is learned, it is necessary to unlearn violence by practising love and compassion at every possible opportunity.[original research?]


Nonviolence, for many, involves a respect and reverence for all sentient and non-sentient beings. This might include abolitionism, the practice of not eating animal flesh (vegetarianism or veganism), spiritual practices of non-harm to all beings and caring for the rights of all beings. Mohandas Gandhi, James Bevel, and other nonviolent proponents advocated vegetarianism as part of their nonviolent philosophy. Buddhists extend this respect for life to animals, plants, and even minerals.


Martin Luther King Jr.

Nonviolent action generally comprises three categories: Acts of Protest and Persuasion, Noncooperation, and Nonviolent Intervention.[18]

Acts of protest

Nonviolent acts of protest and persuasion are symbolic actions performed by a group of people to show their support or disapproval of something. The goal of this kind of action is to bring public awareness to an issue, persuade or influence a particular group of people, or to facilitate future nonviolent action. The message can be directed toward the public, opponents, or people affected by the issue. Methods of protest and persuasion include speeches, public communications, petitions, symbolic acts, art, processions (marches), and other public assemblies.[19]


Noncooperation involves the purposeful withholding of cooperation or the unwillingness to initiate in cooperation with an opponent. The goal of noncooperation is to halt or hinder an industry, political system, or economic process. Methods of noncooperation include labor strikes, economic boycotts, civil disobedience, sex strike, tax refusal, and general disobedience.[19]

Nonviolent intervention

Compared with protest and noncooperation, nonviolent intervention is a more direct method of nonviolent action. Nonviolent intervention can be used defensively—for example to maintain an institution or independent initiative—or offensively- for example, to drastically forward a nonviolent struggle into the opponent's territory. Intervention is often more immediate and effective than the other two methods, but is also harder to maintain and more taxing to the participants involved.

Gene Sharp, a political scientist and nonviolence activist, has written extensively about methods of nonviolence. In his book Waging Nonviolent Struggle he describes 198 methods of nonviolent action.[20] In early Greece, Aristophanes' Lysistrata gives the fictional example of women withholding sexual favors from their husbands until war was abandoned. Other methods of intervention include occupations (sit-ins), blockades, fasting (hunger strikes), truck cavalcades, and dual sovereignty/parallel government.[19]

Tactics must be carefully chosen, taking into account political and cultural circumstances, and form part of a larger plan or strategy.

Successful nonviolent cross-border intervention projects include the Guatemala Accompaniment Project,[21] Peace Brigades International and Christian Peacemaker Teams. Developed in the early1980's ,and originally inspired by the Gandhian Shanti Sena, the primary tools of these organizations have been nonviolent protective accompaniment, backed up by a global support network which can respond to threats, local and regional grassroots diplomatic and peacebuilding efforts, human rights observation and witnessing, and reporting.[22][23]

Another powerful tactic of nonviolent intervention invokes public scrutiny of the oppressors as a result of the resisters remaining nonviolent in the face of violent repression. If the military or police attempt to repress nonviolent resisters violently, the power to act shifts from the hands of the oppressors to those of the resisters. If the resisters are persistent, the military or police will be forced to accept the fact that they no longer have any power over the resisters. Often, the willingness of the resisters to suffer has a profound effect on the mind and emotions of the oppressor, leaving them unable to commit such a violent act again.[24][25]


Certain individuals (Barbara Deming, Danilo Dolci, Devere Allen etc.) and party groups (e.g. Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, Pacifist Socialist Party or War Resisters League) have advocated nonviolent revolution as an alternative to violence as well as elitist reformism. This perspective is usually connected to militant anti-capitalism.[citation needed]

Many leftist and socialist movements have hoped to mount a "peaceful revolution" by organizing enough strikers to completely paralyze the state and corporate apparatus, allowing workers to re-organize society along radically different lines.[citation needed] Some have argued that a relatively nonviolent revolution would require fraternisation with military forces.[26]


Leon Trotsky, Frantz Fanon, Reinhold Niebuhr, Subhash Chandra Bose, George Orwell, Ward Churchill[27] and Malcolm X were fervent critics of nonviolence, arguing variously that nonviolence and pacifism are an attempt to impose the morals of the bourgeoisie upon the proletariat, that violence is a necessary accompaniment to revolutionary change, or that the right to self-defense is fundamental.

In the midst of violent repression of radical African Americans in the United States during the 1960s, Black Panther member George Jackson said of the nonviolent tactics of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"The concept of nonviolence is a false ideal. It presupposes the existence of compassion and a sense of justice on the part of one's adversary. When this adversary has everything to lose and nothing to gain by exercising justice and compassion, his reaction can only be negative."[28][29]

Malcolm X also clashed with civil rights leaders over the issue of nonviolence, arguing that violence should not be ruled out where no option remained:

"I believe it's a crime for anyone being brutalized to continue to accept that brutality without doing something to defend himself."[30]

Lance Hill criticizes nonviolence as a failed strategy and argues that black armed self-defense and civil violence motivated civil rights reforms more than peaceful appeals to morality and reason (see Lance Hill's "Deacons for Defense").[31]

In his book How Nonviolence Protects the State, anarchist Peter Gelderloos criticizes nonviolence as being ineffective, racist, statist, patriarchal, tactically and strategical inferior to militant activism, and deluded.[32] Gelderloos claims that traditional histories whitewash the impact of nonviolence, ignoring the involvement of militants in such movements as the Indian independence movement and the Civil Rights movement and falsely showing Gandhi and King as being their respective movement's most successful activist.[33] He further argues that nonviolence is generally advocated by privileged white people who expect "oppressed people, many of whom are people of color, to suffer patiently under an inconceivably greater violence, until such time as the Great White Father is swayed by the movement's demands or the pacifists achieve that legendary 'critical mass.'"[34]

The efficacy of nonviolence was also challenged by some anti-capitalist protesters advocating a "diversity of tactics" during street demonstrations across Europe and the US following the anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, Washington in 1999. American feminist writer D. A. Clarke, in her essay "A Woman With A Sword," suggests that for nonviolence to be effective, it must be "practiced by those who could easily resort to force if they chose." This argument reasons that nonviolent tactics will be of little or no use to groups that are traditionally considered incapable of violence, since nonviolence will be in keeping with people's expectations for them and thus go unnoticed. Such is the principle of dunamis (from the Greek: δύνάμις or, restrained power).[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ A clarification of this and related terms will appear in Gene Sharp, Sharp's Dictionary of Power and Struggle: Language of Civil Resistance in Conflicts, Oxford University Press, New York, forthcoming (2012?).
  2. ^ Ronald Brian Adler, Neil Towne, Looking Out/Looking In: Interpersonal Communication, 9th ed. Harcourt Brace College Publishers, p. 416, 1999. "In the twentieth century, nonviolence proved to be a powerful tool for political change."
  3. ^ Lester R. Kurtz, Jennifer E. Turpin, Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict, p.557, 1999. "In the West, nonviolence is well recognized for its tactical, strategic, or political aspects. It is seen as a powerful tool for redressing social inequality."
  4. ^ Mark Kurlansky, Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, Foreword by Dalai Lama, p. 5-6, Modern Library (April 8, 2008), ISBN 0812974476 "Advocates of nonviolence — dangerous people — have been there throughout history, questioning the greatness of Caesar and Napoleon and the Founding Fathers and Roosevelt and Churchill."
  5. ^ Stanley M. Burstein and Richard Shek: "World History Ancient Civilizations ", page 154. Holt, Rinhart and Winston, 2005. As Chavez once explained, "Nonviolence is not inaction. It is not for the timid or the weak. It is hard work, it is the patience to win."
  6. ^ RP's History Online - Velvet Revolution
  7. ^ a b Ives, Susan (19 October 2001). "No Fear". Palo Alto College. Retrieved 2009-05-17 
  8. ^ Chris Graham, Peacebuilding alum talks practical app of nonviolence, Augusta Free Press, October 26, 2009.
  9. ^ Hand, Judith L. (2010) "To Abolish War." Journal of Aggression, Conflict, and Peace Research 2(4): 44-56.
  10. ^ Adam Roberts, Introduction, in Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash (eds.), Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, Oxford University Press, 2009 pp. 3 and 13-20.
  11. ^ Sharp, Gene (1973). The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Porter Sargen. p. 12. ISBN 9780875580685. 
  12. ^ Two Kinds of Nonviolent Resistance ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
  13. ^ a b Nonviolent Resistance & Political Power ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans (U.S.)
  14. ^ Tähtinen p. 2-5; English translation: Schmidt p. 631.
  15. ^ Mark Kurlansky, Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea‎, p. 7-13, p. 33.
  16. ^ Kristen Madden, Raven Grimassi, Starhawk, Exploring the Pagan Path: Wisdom from the Elders, p. 259, Career Press, 2005 ISBN 1-56414-788-6
  17. ^
  18. ^ United Nations International Day of Non-Violence, United Nations, 2008. see International Day of Non-Violence.
  19. ^ a b c Sharp, Gene (2005). Waging Nonviolent Struggle. Extending Horizon Books. pp. 50–65. ISBN 0875581625. 
  20. ^ Sharp, Gene (1973). The Methods of Nonviolent Action. Peace magazine. Retrieved 2008-11-07 
  21. ^ Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala
  22. ^ "PBI's principles". Peace Brigades International. PBI General Assembly. 1992, 2001. Retrieved 2009-05-17. 
  23. ^ "Christian Peace Maker Teams Mission Statement". Christian Peacemaker Team. CPT founding conference. 1986. Retrieved 2009-05-17. 
  24. ^ Sharp, Gene (1973). The Politics of Nonviolent Action. P. Sargent Publisher. p. 657. ISBN 9780875580685. 
  25. ^ Sharp, Gene (2005). Waging Nonviolent Struggle. Extending Horizon Books. p. 381. ISBN 0875581625. 
  26. ^ Dan Jakopovich: Revolution and the Party in Gramsci's Thought: A Modern Application.
  27. ^ Churchill, Ward et al. Pacifism as Pathology. Arbeiter Ring, 1998.
  28. ^ Jackson, George. Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. Lawrence Hill Books, 1994. ISBN 1-55652-230-4
  29. ^ Walters, Wendy W. At Home in Diaspora. U of Minnesota Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8166-4491-8
  30. ^ X, Malcolm and Alex Haley:"The Autobiography of Malcolm X", page 366. Grove Press, 1964
  31. ^ The Deacons for Defense:Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement By Lance Hill, The University of North Carolina Press
  32. ^ Gelderloos, Peter. How Nonviolence Protects the State. Boston: South End Press, 2007.
  33. ^ Ibid., p.7-12.
  34. ^ Ibid., p.23.

Further reading

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  • nonviolence — [n] abstention from violence nonagression, pacification, pacifism, passiveness, passivity, peaceableness; concepts 388,691 …   New thesaurus

  • nonviolence — [nän′vī′ə ləns] n. an abstaining from violence or from the use of physical force, as in efforts to obtain civil rights or in opposing government policy: see also CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE, PASSIVE RESISTANCE nonviolent adj …   English World dictionary

  • nonviolence — noun Date: 1920 1. abstention from violence as a matter of principle; also the principle of such abstention 2. a. the quality or state of being nonviolent ; avoidance of violence b. nonviolent demonstrations for the purpose of securing political… …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • nonviolence — /non vuy euh leuhns/, n. 1. absence or lack of violence; state or condition of avoiding violence. 2. the policy, practice, or technique of refraining from the use of violence, esp. when reacting to or protesting against oppression, injustice,… …   Universalium

  • nonviolence — noun A philosophy that rejects the use of violence, and instead seeks to bring about change through peaceful responses even to violent acts …   Wiktionary

  • nonviolence —    See ahimsa …   Encyclopedia of Hinduism

  • nonviolence — Synonyms and related words: a wise passiveness, abnegation, abstinence, calm, calmness, conservatism, constraint, contemplation, contemplative life, continence, control, cool, dispassion, do nothing policy, do nothingism, do nothingness, dormancy …   Moby Thesaurus

  • nonviolence — I (New American Roget s College Thesaurus) n. moderation, pacifism. II (Roget s 3 Superthesaurus) n. peace, peacefulness, pacifism, passiveness, nonaggression, dovishness, passive resistance …   English dictionary for students

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