Nonviolence is a strategy to win in conflict. It was invented by Gandhi during the struggle of independence of the people of India against British imperialism. It was so successful as a strategy that it produced the most decisive of all victories to bring down the British empire.
For the basic principles of nonviolence, see the clear exposition by Martin Luther King, Jr in his book Stride Toward Freedom.
A key to nonviolence is that there should be no enemies. The struggle is against ideas and institutions but not individual persons. As Gandhi put it, “Hate the sin and not the sinner” History shows that people change and today’s enemy can become tomorrow’s ally. Perhaps the most extraordinary example is that of Saul of Tarsus who was the persecutor of the Christians until he was converted to Christianity and became St. Paul.
As we leave the 20th Century behind, nonviolence has yet to reach its full potential. Both Gandhi and King were assassinated. In India independence was marred by a bloodbath between Hindus and Muslims and the splitting off of Pakistan. The movement begun by King has yet to reach its goals of racial equality in America. Enemy images continue to be used by those seeking dominance in the world today, including the anti-Islamic language of American militarism and the anti-American language of Islamist sects.
We have a long way to go in the 21st Century to put nonviolence on the agenda and to replace enemy images by the tactics of Gandhi that the opponent must be “weaned from error by patience and sympathy.”
There are important lessons to be learned from the practical experiences of nonviolent revolutionaries in the 21st Century. One of the most important is the “Peace Process” that was at the center of the successful struggle to overthrow apartheid and establish a multi-racial democracy in South Africa. It directly engaged people in conflict management on a grass roots level throughout the country. At their peak, there were 11 regional committees and over one hundred local peace committees,
Another important side of the South African struggle was the international movement in solidarity with the struggle against Apartheid. The movement forced major imperialist countries and institutions to withdraw financial investment from companies doing business with the South African apartheid government.
The success of the nonviolent struggles led by Gandhi in India and by the ANC in South Africa, as well as more recent nonviolent struggles in the Philippines, Czechoslovakia and Venezuela, has depended on the mobilization of large numbers of people to come onto the streets where they have overwhelmed military power by their sheer numbers. Success, however, did not come as a result of spontaneous action. Instead, many of the people were prepared by training and discipline in nonviolent resistance.
As Gandhi has stressed, nonviolence requires at least as much training as that of a traditional soldier. “It takes a fairly strenuous course of training to attain to a mental state of non-violence … The perfect state is reached only when mind and body and speech are in proper co-ordination. But it is always a case of intense mental struggle … Non-violence is a weapon of the strong.”
An important part of training for revolutionaries in the 21st Century will be the study of nonviolent resistance movements and training and experience in the disciplined methods that prove to be successful in these movements. No doubt, there will be more and more such movements in the coming years – and more lessons to be learned and applied.
For nonviolence to succeed there must be training of thousands of activists, mastering the discipline of nonviolence and the principles and practices of revolutionary leadership.