Nonviolence as a constructive force

Originally Published in xxx


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 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 limitations 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 increasing 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 is 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 unites. 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 coming century.


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 almost all have in common that they looks at war as “an armed conflict with XX numbers of causalties….”. I will oppose all of these different definitions by arguing that war is NOT a type of conflict, however you are calculating the number of deaths. 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. 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 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 is 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.  Manilla. 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 president.

Eastern Europe

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 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.


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.



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Posted in In English, Nonviolence

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