Nonviolent Social Change


Source: Johansen, Jørgen. 2012. “Nonviolent Social Change.” In The Medical Peace Work Textbook, 2nd edition, Course 1-7, edited by J. Salvage, M. Rowson and K. Melf. London: Medact.

Nonviolent Social Change

In this lesson you will:

  • You will learn about historical nonviolent social movement
  • How these movements are working
  • Have the possibility to reflect on the future of social movement
  • Understand why Nonviolence can be a force

In all communities in human history we have seen groups of people struggling for what they regarded as just demands and against wars and exploitation. More or less organized brave individuals have opposed cruelty and demanded changes in their societies. Besides the well known armed uprisings many of the most successful movements have used nonviolent means. These are not all well documented and hence less known. We will in the following look at some of these movements and then explain how their nonviolent strategy can succeed against forceful opponents.

Successful historical movements

According to the ancient play by Ariastphanes from 411 BC Lysistrata convinces the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers as a means of forcing the men to negotiate peace. That is an early example of a social movement taking up nonviolent means against aggression.


Abolitionism was the name of a European and American social movement to end the slave trade and abolish slavery. When the rationalist thinkers of Enlightenment came with ideas of Human Rights and several religious groups saw slavery as the extreme violation of Human Rights. Quakers and other started a movement. They had all economical and most of the political elite against the idea of ending slavery. But after many decades the movement began to harvest victories. Denmark, which had been active in the slave trade, was the first country to ban the trade through legislation in 1792. Britain banned the slave trade (but not slavery itself) in 1807 and today slavery is illegal in all countries.

Freedom of speech

The struggle for the freedom of speech is a movement with a long history which is still in function today. To introduce censorship was one way authoritarian regimes controlled discussions and the opposition. This conflict escalated when the printing of books became more wide spread. Authors, printers, publishers, and booksellers challenged and opposed what they saw as unjust censorship and violated the laws. The court cases, cruel punishments and public debates that followed created popular movements in the defense of the individuals that challenged the censorships; the resulting pressure on the legislative bodies forced liberation of the laws. Step by step, with some backlash now and then, we have over time seen less censorship and more freedom of speech. In many countries these movements are still facing serious obstacles.

Today we can see a global movement around copyrights and the legality of sharing texts, music and movies on the Net. No one should be surprised if this movement will have success in the years to come. The strategies used to violate laws regarded as unjust has worked in the past.

Universal suffrage

A little more than one-hundred years ago the majority of men in power argued that women were not intelligent or smart enough to be given the right to vote and hence were not allowed to decide who should lead a state! Universal suffrage was fought for by social movements in country after country. A few cases of violence are documented but the struggle was by and large nonviolent. Many were arrested when they went out on the streets to demonstrate for their rights. Finnish women became the first in the world to have unrestricted rights both to vote and to stand for parliament in 1906. Today, there are still countries where women are refused their right to vote.

Specific wars

We have seen nonviolent social movements against specific wars. The most known is probably the movement against the US war in Vietnam. It is more or less the consensus today that US lost that war, not on the battleground, but due to strong opposition back home and in other countries. The political opposition was too strong for the White House and congress to justify a continuation or escalation with more military force. They had the armed capacity to destroy Vietnam completely but the moral and political costs were too heavy.

Specific Weapon Systems

The anti nuclear movement started as a reaction to the burning to death of more than 100 000 civilian Japanese citizens in Hiroshima and Nagasaki August 1945. Opposition to the Neutron bomb (a type of Nuclear bomb with less material destruction and more deadly radiation) in the late seventies and early eighties resulted in the dismantling of such weapons after a decision made by US President George H. W. Bush in 1992.

Above you see the first draft of the symbol for Nuclear Disarmament (based on the two letter N(uclear) and D(isarmament) in Semaphore) from the planning of a demonstration against nuclear weapons in London 1958. Later this symbol became one the most well known symbols in human history.

Landmines were invented by the Norwegian Nils Waltersen Aasen more than one hundred years ago. These weapons continue to kill years after a ceasefire and are harming people in the most brutal way. The so-called Ottawa Process that led to the signing of the Mine Ban Treaty in 1997 was unorthodox, historic and unprecedented. More than 1800 NGO’s joined the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL)

and pushed the issue to the top of the global political agenda. Through protests, demonstrations, lobbying, and spectacular actions, the ICBL was able to create enough interest for a global movement to demand a ban. They demanded an end to production, storage and use of such weapons. The treaty they managed to agree on is the product of an unusually cohesive and strategic partnership between non-governmental organisations, international organisations, United Nations agencies and governments.


The modern environment movement is an excellent example of a successful nonviolent social movement. Through nonviolent blockades, boycotts, protests, demonstrations, civil disobedience, and spectacular ”street theatres” people have raised awareness and interest in many topics that both the public and the authorities were not aware of. Through provocative, but peaceful actions, they have challenged insufficient regulations on pollution, bad laws with regards to foresting, raised awareness on global warming and threats against our biodiversity, and a number of other issues of crucial importance for humanity and future generations.

Nonviolent Revolutions

Since the early 1980’s the world has witnessed a number or nonviolent social movements aiming to remove regimes in authoritarian states and after frauds in elections. From Poland in 1980 to Czech Republic 2009 we have seen people in more than 30 cases of unarmed uprisings agains the political leaderships where ordinary citizens have forced them to step down

Wave One: Poland, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Philippines

Wave two: Czechoslovakia, DDR, Hungary, Bulgaria, Moldavia , Litauen, Esthonia, Lithuania, Russia, Tadzjikistan, Azerbadjan, Bellarus

Wave three: Sub-Saharan Africa: Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Senegal, Mali, and Malawi, Madagascar

Wave four: Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon

Wave five: Iceland, Latvia, Hungary, Czech Republic,….

Each of these cases are unique and must be understood from their own context, but there are still a number of common factors. In all of them we have seen a massive mobilisation of people in public places. They have taken up a wide spectrum of nonviolent means and stayed calm even when met with armed police. Read more in Waging Nonviolent Struggle, 20th Century Practice and 21th Century Potential (Sharp 2005) and Waves of Nonviolence and the New Revolutionary Movements (Johansen 2009).

What are the means and strategies used?

When we are witnessing nonviolent activists meeting police or soldiers, it can seem strange that the peaceful protesters would have any chance of winning. To understand we need to go back to the liberation of India and the Gandhian movement. Mohandas Gandhi realized that political power was dependent on cooperation from below. Without support and cooperation from ordinary citizens no government can stay in power. It is like an old Greek temple; the structure is based on pillars supporting it from below. If we try to imagine that these pillars represent different kinds of support we can see that it is possible to withdraw such support. A strike is withdrawal of support as a producer and a boycott is withdrawal of support as consumer. Without producers the factories cannot produce goods and without consumers no company can stay in business.

(Include figure here)

When these pillars are weakened or removed completely it is obvious that the power structure will collapse. Gandhi picked to monopolize on salt production and the high taxes on salt consumption as a target for one of his first huge campaigns. When he asked all Indians to refuse to pay the salt tax he undermined the British authorities. When Solidarity called for strikes in 1980 they targeted another or the pillars. The strikes in Poland were crucial for the removal of the communist regime. In the Philippines 1986 Marcos knew his days were coming to an end when the military changed sides and supported the opposition leader Corazon Aquino. Security forces refused to follow orders given by Slobodan Milošević in Belgrade on October 5 2000. Then the people demonstrating for the removal of Milošević knew they had won. Massive civil disobedience ended the days of the DDR regime and the Berlin wall was pulled down. Thanks to people in the bureaucracy refusing to do their work in India the British control over India was no longer possible. The list can be made much longer, but these are all examples of such ”pillars” of support for the political power being weakened or removed completely.

There are no guarantees that such movements will not be met with violence. We have seen such tragic cases as the massacres at Tienanmen Square in Beijing 1989 or Sharpville 1960. But we also see that they can backfire. That is when a violence is used and it cannot be justified. The perpetrator looses their legitimacy which can be a turning point in the struggle and the question is no longer if but when those behind atrocities will loose power. More on the backfire effect here:

From this broad strategic thinking based on non-cooperation movements have developed a wide variety of techniques. Gene Sharp has given practical examples of 198 different kinds of actions in his book The Methods of Nonviolent Actions. You can find a listing of them all here:

There are a number of new techniques developed for social movements. These actions are combined and used in campaigns for a specific political goal. Some of the actions included peaceful violations of ”unjust” laws; civil disobedience. Below is a list of actions that fullfil four criteria:

1. Violation of law or norm

2. Without violence

3. In public and face the consequences

4. With a moral or conscience

The idea is to raise enough awareness to mobilize a movement and ”force” the Parliament to utilize new legislations.

These forms of ”criminal” activity have a long history. The term ”Civil Disobedience” was first used by Henry David Thoreau in his essay, Civil Disobedience. There he presentes an argument for individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state. Thoreau refused to pay taxes because of his opposition to the Mexican-American War and slavery.

Many have since picked up this term and this a powerful tool in many nonviolent social movements.


Johansen, Jørgen, and Brian Martin (2008) “Sending the Protest Message.” Gandhi Marg 29, no. 4, pp 503-519 The text can be found here:

Johansen, Jørgen (2009) ”Waves of Nonviolence and the New Revolutionary Movements.” In Seeds of New Hope, Pan-African Peace Studies for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Matt Meyer and Elavie D. Ouédraogo. Asmara: African World Press

Sharp, Gene (1973) The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Vol. 2: The Methods of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers

Sharp, Gene (2005) Waging Nonviolent Struggle, 20th Century Practice and 21th Century Potential. Boston Extending Horizon Books


1.Why do we have social movements?

  1. The government doesn’t do their job good enough?
  2. People feel that it is not enough to vote in Parliamentarian elections?
  3. Minorities want to have say?
  4. People want to change our societies?

2. What are the means used by Social Movements?

a. Armed struggle?

b. Lobbying?

c. Demonstrations?

d. Civil Disobedience?

e. Nonviolent Revolutions?

3. How old are the Social Movements?

a. Less than 20 years?

b. Around hundred years?

c. Their history goes back as long as we have a documented human history?

d. They came with the development of Democratic States

  1. How many waves of Nonviolent Revolutions have we seen the last four decades?

a. One?

b. Five?

c. More than 10?

d. Hundreds?

  1. What was unique with the Gandhian understanding of Political Power?

a. He saw it as equal to Force?

b. He thought it was based on Financial Strength

c. He saw it as being dependent on Cooperation

d. He saw it as tool to force the British Empire to leave India?

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in In English, Nonviolence

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: