Nonviolence (from Sanskrit ahimṣā, non-violence, "lack of desire to harm or kill") is the personal practice of being harmless to self and others under every condition. It comes from the belief that hurting people, animals or the environment is unnecessary to achieve an outcome and refers to a general philosophy of abstention from violence based on moral, religious or spiritual principles.
For some, the philosophy of nonviolence is rooted in the simple belief that God is harmless. Mahavira (599 BCE–527 BCE), the twenty-fourth tirthankara of the Jain religion, was the torch-bearer of "ahimsa" and introduced the word to the world and applied the concept in his own life. He taught that to more strongly connect with God, one must likewise be harmless. Nonviolence also has 'active' or 'activist' elements, in that believers accept the need for nonviolence as a means to achieve political and social change. Thus, for example, the Tolstoy and Gandhian nonviolence 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, nonviolent direct action, and social, political, cultural and economic forms of intervention.
In modern times, nonviolent methods of action have been a powerful tool for social protest and revolutionary social and political change. 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 successful decades-long nonviolent struggle against British rule in India, Martin Luther King's and James Bevel's adoption of Gandhi's nonviolent methods in their campaigns 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. The 1989 "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia that saw the overthrow of the Communist government is considered one of the most important of the largely nonviolent Revolutions of 1989. Most recently the nonviolent campaigns of Leymah Gbowee and the women of Liberia were able to achieve peace after a 14-year civil war. 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 the use of nonviolent direct action to dismantle the global war machine.
The term "nonviolence" is often linked with or used as a synonym for peace, and despite being frequently equated with passivity and pacifism, this is rejected by nonviolent advocates and activists. Nonviolence refers specifically to the absence of violence and is always the choice to do no harm or the least harm, and passivity is the choice to do nothing. Sometimes nonviolence is passive, and other times it isn't. So If a house is burning down with mice or insects in it, the most harmless appropriate action is to put the fire out, not to sit by and passively let the fire burn. There is at times confusion and contradiction written about nonviolence, harmlessnessm and passivity. A confused person may advocate nonviolence in a specific context while advocating violence in other contexts. For example, someone who passionately opposes abortion or meat eating may concurrently advocate violence to kill an abortionist or attack a slaughterhouse, which makes that person a violent person.
Advocates of nonviolent action believe cooperation and consent are the roots of civil or 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. On a national level, the strategy of nonviolent action 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 nonviolent action. Commonly, both of these dimensions may be present within the thinking of particular movements or individuals.
The fundamental concept of pragmatic (or tactical or strategic) nonviolent action is to create a social dynamic or political movement that can create a national or international dialogue which effects social change without necessarily winning over those who wish to maintain the status quo.
Nicolas Walter noted the idea that nonviolence might work "runs under the surface of Western political thought without ever quite disappearing". Walter noted Étienne de La Boétie's Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (sixteenth century) and P.B. Shelley's The Masque of Anarchy (1819) contain arguments for resisting tyranny without using violence. In 1838, William Lloyd Garrison helped found the New England Non-Resistance Society, a society devoted to achieving racial and gender equality through the rejection of all violent actions.
In modern industrial democracies, nonviolent action 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 nonviolent action 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 (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
As a technique for social struggle, nonviolent action has been described as "the politics of ordinary people", reflecting its historically mass-based use by populations throughout the world and history.
Movements 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 Dr Martin Luther King, James Bevel, and others, 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 nonviolent methods, either as a tactical tool or as a strategic program on purely pragmatic and strategic levels, relying on their political effectiveness rather than a claim to any religious, moral or ethical worthiness.
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 behaviour, and perhaps their beliefs. Martin Luther King wrote, "Nonviolent resistance... avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent, but he also refuses to hate him." 
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.
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 abstaining from violent behavior or words. It means overriding the impulse to be hateful and holding love for everyone, even those with whom one strongly disagrees. In this view, because violence is learned, it is necessary to unlearn violence by practicing love and compassion at every possible opportunity. For some, the commitment to non-violence entails a belief in restorative or transformative justice, an abolition of the death penalty and other harsh punishments. This may involve the necessity of caring for those who are violent.
Nonviolence, for many, involves a respect and reverence for all sentient, and perhaps even non-sentient, beings. This might include abolitionism against animals as property, the practice of not eating animal products or bi-products (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, while Jains extend this respect for life to animals, plants and even micro-organisms.
Nonviolent action generally comprises three categories: Acts of Protest and Persuasion, Noncooperation, and Nonviolent Intervention.
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.
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 labour strikes, economic boycotts, civil disobedience, sex strike, tax refusal, and general disobedience.
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 who seeks to advance the worldwide study and use of strategic nonviolent action in conflict, has written extensively about the methods of nonviolent action. In his book Waging Nonviolent Struggle he describes 198 methods of nonviolent action. In early Greece, Aristophanes' Lysistrata gives the fictional example of women withholding sexual favors from their husbands until war was abandoned. A modern work of fiction inspired by Gene Sharp and by Aristophanes is A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski, depicting an ocean world inhabited by women who use nonviolent means to repel armed space invaders. Other methods of nonviolent intervention include occupations (sit-ins), blockades, fasting (hunger strikes), truck cavalcades, and dual sovereignty/parallel government.
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, Peace Brigades International and Christian Peacemaker Teams. Developed in the early 1980s, and originally inspired by the Gandhian Shanti Sena, the primary tools of these organisations 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. In extreme cases, most of these groups are also prepared to do interpositioning: placing themselves between parties who are engaged or threatening to engage in outright attacks in one or both directions. Individual and large group cases of interpositioning, when called for, have been remarkably effective in dampening conflict and saving lives.
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.
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.
Many leftist and socialist movements have hoped to mount a "peaceful revolution" by organising enough strikers to completely paralyse the state and corporate apparatus, allowing workers to re-organise society along radically different lines. Some have argued that a relatively nonviolent revolution would require fraternisation with military forces.
Leon Trotsky, Frantz Fanon, Subhas Chandra Bose and Ward Churchill 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. Note, for example, the complaint of Malcolm X that ""I believe it's a crime for anyone being brutalized to continue to accept that brutality without doing something to defend himself."
Since all these objections are based on the belief that nonviolence has no power (in other words that it is tantamount to no resistance at all), nonviolent activists responding to these arguments point to the success of non-violent struggles even against the Nazi regimes in Denmark and even in Berlin. Since the appearance of the important study by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan it has been possible to document the fact that nonviolent revolutions are twice as effective as violent ones and lead to much greater degrees of democratic freedom.
George Orwell argued that the nonviolent resistance strategy of Gandhi could be effective in countries with "a free press and the right of assembly", which could make it possible "not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary"; however, he was skeptical of Gandhi's approach being effective in the opposite sort of circumstances. Reinhold Niebuhr similarly affirmed Gandhi's approach while criticizing aspects of it. He argued that "[t]he advantage of non-violence as a method of expressing moral goodwill lies in the fact that it protects the agent against the resentments which violent conflict always creates in both parties to a conflict, and it proves this freedom of resentment and ill-will to the contending party in the dispute by enduring more suffering than it causes." However, Niebuhr also held "[t]he differences between violent and non-violent methods of coercion and resistance are not so absolute that it would be possible to regard violence as a morally impossible instrument of social change."
"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."
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:
In his book How Nonviolence Protects the State, anarchist Peter Gelderloos criticises nonviolence as being ineffective, racist, statist, patriarchal, tactically and strategically inferior to militant activism, and deluded. 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. 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.'" On the other hand anarchism also includes a section committed to nonviolence called anarcho-pacifism. The main early influences were the thought of Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy while later the ideas of Mohandas Gandhi gained importance. It developed "mostly in Holland, Britain, and the United States, before and during the Second World War".
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." Nonviolence advocates see some truth in this argument: Gandhi himself said often that he could teach nonviolence to a violent person but not to a coward, and that true nonviolence came from renouncing violence, not by not having any to renounce.
- Nonviolence organizations
- Christian anarchism
- Christian pacifism
- Conflict resolution
- Consistent life ethic
- Department of Peace
- Draft resistance
- International Day of Non-Violence
- List of peace activists
- Non-aggression principle
- Nonviolence International
- Nonviolent Communication
- Nonviolent resistance
- Nonviolent revolution
- Passive resistance
- Social defence
- Tax resistance
- Third Party Non-violent Intervention
- Turning the other cheek
- Violence begets violence
- War resister
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- A clarification of this and related terms appears in Gene Sharp, Sharp's Dictionary of Power and Struggle: Language of Civil Resistance in Conflicts, Oxford University Press, New York, 2012.
- 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."
- 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."
- Mark Kurlansky, Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, Foreword by Dalai Lama, p. 5-6, Modern Library (April 8, 2008), ISBN 0-8129-7447-6 "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."
- "James L. Bevel The Strategist of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement" by Randy Kryn, a paper in David Garrow's 1989 book We Shall Overcome Volume II, Carlson Publishing Company
- "Movement Revision Research Summary Regarding James Bevel" by Randy Kryn, October 2005, published by Middlebury College
- 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."
- RP's History Online - Velvet Revolution
- Ives, Susan (19 October 2001). "No Fear". Palo Alto College. Retrieved 2009-05-17.
- Chris Graham, Peacebuilding alum talks practical app of nonviolence, Augusta Free Press, October 26, 2009.
- Hand, Judith L. (2010) "To Abolish War." Journal of Aggression, Conflict, and Peace Research 2(4): 44-56.
- Ackerman, Peter and Jack DuVall (2001) "A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-Violent Conflict"(Palgrave Macmillan)
- 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.
- Sharp, Gene (1973). The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Porter Sargent. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-87558-068-5.
- Two Kinds of Nonviolent Resistance ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
- Nonviolent Resistance & Political Power ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans (U.S.)
- Nicolas Walter, "Non-Violent Resistance:Men Against War". Reprinted in Nicolas Walter, Damned Fools in Utopia edited by David Goodway. PM Press 2010. ISBN 160486222X (pp. 37-78).
- Martin Luther King, Jr.. Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. Beacon Press. p. 114. ISBN 978-0-8070-0070-0.
- United Nations International Day of Non-Violence, United Nations, 2008. see International Day of Non-Violence.
- Sharp, Gene (2005). Waging Nonviolent Struggle. Extending Horizon Books. pp. 50–65. ISBN 0-87558-162-5.
- Sharp, Gene (1973). "The Methods of Nonviolent Action". Peace magazine. Retrieved 2008-11-07.
- Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala
- "PBI's principles". Peace Brigades International. PBI General Assembly. 2001 . Retrieved 2009-05-17.
- "Christian Peace Maker Teams Mission Statement". Christian Peacemaker Team. CPT founding conference. 1986. Retrieved 2009-05-17.
- Sharp, Gene (1973). The Politics of Nonviolent Action. P. Sargent Publisher. p. 657. ISBN 978-0-87558-068-5.
- Sharp, Gene (2005). Waging Nonviolent Struggle. Extending Horizon Books. p. 381. ISBN 0-87558-162-5.
- Daniel Jakopovich: Revolution and the Party in Gramsci's Thought: A Modern Application.
- Churchill, Ward et al. Pacifism as Pathology. Arbeiter Ring, 1998.
- X, Malcolm and Alex Haley:"The Autobiography of Malcolm X", page 366. Grove Press, 1964
- Aryan woman, protesting against the arrest of their Jewish husbands, secured the release of their husbands even at the height of Nazi power
- "Why Civil Resistance Works, The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict", New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
- Orwell, George. Reflections on Gandhi, Partisan Review, January 1949. Found at http://www.orwell.ru/library/reviews/gandhi/english/e_gandhi on 21 August 2012.
- Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society, Charles Scribner's Sons. 1932. Chapter 9. Found at http://www.colorado.edu/ReligiousStudies/chernus/4800/MoralManAndImmoralSociety/Section6.htm on 21 August 2012.
- Jackson, George. Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. Lawrence Hill Books, 1994. ISBN 1-55652-230-4
- Walters, Wendy W. At Home in Diaspora. U of Minnesota Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8166-4491-8
- Gelderloos, Peter. How Nonviolence Protects the State. Boston: South End Press, 2007.
- Ibid., p.7-12.
- Ibid., p.23.
- George Woodcock. Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements (1962)
- "Resisting the Nation State, the pacifist and anarchist tradition" by Geoffrey Ostergaard
- Woodstock, George (1962). Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. "Finally, somewhat aside from the curve that runs from anarchist individualism to anarcho-syndicalism, we come to Tolstoyanism and to pacifist anarchism that appeared, mostly in the Netherlands, Britain, and the United states, before and after the Second World War and which has continued since then in the deep in the anarchist involvement in the protests against nuclear armament."
- ISBN 978-1-937786-21-2 Mahavira: The Hero of Nonviolence, by Manoj K Jain
- OCLC 03859761 The Kingdom of God Is Within You, by Leo Tolstoy
- ISBN 978-0-85066-336-5 Making Europe Unconquerable: the Potential of Civilian-Based Deterrence and Defense (see article), by Gene Sharp
- ISBN 0-87558-162-5 Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice And 21st Century Potential, by Gene Sharp with collaboration of Joshua Paulson and the assistance of Christopher A. Miller and Hardy Merriman
- ISBN 0-8166-4193-5 Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Non-Democracies, by Kurt Schock
- ISBN 1-930722-35-4 Is There No Other Way? The Search for a Nonviolent Future, by Michael Nagler
- ISBN 0-85283-262-1 People Power and Protest since 1945: A Bibliography of Nonviolent Action, compiled by April Carter, Howard Clark, and [Michael Randle], online at  with updates.
- ISBN 978-0-903517-21-8 Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns, War Resisters' International
- ISBN 978-0-19-955201-6 Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, ed. Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash, Oxford University Press, 2009. (hardback) .
- How to Start a Revolution, documentary directed by Ruaridh Arrow
- A Force More Powerful, documentary directed by Steve York
- On The Question of Violence and Nonviolence In The Social Protest Movement, By David Van Deusen of the Green Mountain Anarchist Collective, Black Clover Press, 2002.
- Nonviolent activism at DMOZ
- Nonviolence in philosophy at DMOZ
- Civil Disobedience - Henry David Thoreau's complete essay with audio
- Nonviolence International - international organization focused on promoting nonviolence worldwide
- Right to Nonviolence - international organization focused on promoting nonviolence through law where possible, and through democratic mobilization where necessary.
- Waging Nonviolence - Popular news blog on nonviolent movements occurring around the world.
- Living Nonviolence - Blog discussing nonviolent movements and events.
- Love My Enemy: Nonviolence as a Way of Life - Blog discussing theory and practice of nonviolence from a secular perspective.
- "Global Nonviolent Action Database". Pennsylvania, USA: Swarthmore College.