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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Readings in Nonviolence

'Readings in Nonviolence' features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)

Nonviolent campaigning

Rob Fairmichael takes a look at the WRI "Handbook for Nonviolent campaigns", second edition (2014).

There is in existence an unspoken piece of 'common sense' in society that, if you are not violent then you simply get on with the job, whatever that is. Political parties work in particular ways. Voluntary and community groups do their own thing. Even peace groups have parameters to the way they work. However, 'getting on with the job' can be a simplistic approach which does not factor in analysis of how things can change in society and how we can work effectively. Small socialist groups who organise desultory marches on an issue – and it may be a very important issue – merely make themselves and the cause espoused look hopeless. We can all be so busy doing the things which we are expected to do, or expect ourselves to do, that we do not get around to doing the things which might, just might, make a difference.

Perhaps because I am a former British Army cadet force member, I want to refer to, but don't want to draw too much of a comparison between, military training and training for nonviolent campaigns. Part of military training is inculcation of violence and the desirability of killing people for a cause, and the hierarchical discipline (and brutalisation) which allows this to happen. A lot of military training is technical, the ability to use weapons effectively. At a certain level military training can be both tactical and strategic; what kind of military campaign can work.

Training in nonviolent campaigning is very different to military training. It is about empowerment of people and not about following orders – but organising effectively and with self discipline is an important part of it. It is about grappling with the complex nature of how change happens, and not just superficial or regime change. How many regimes get toppled for the new regime to be more of the same? Just think of the power of the army in Egypt – or the way the underdog or perceived underdog can quickly become the top dog (Fianna Fáil in the Irish Free State, Sinn Féin and the DUP in the North today). It is also about being strategic and tactical in choosing what to do when, and in what way. Society is complex. How change happens is complex. Yet movements for change can embark on doing exactly the things which are going to make them fail and we know that is common.

War Resisters' International "Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns", second edition (236 pages), is an extended and reworked distillation of wisdom from nonviolent activists around the world. It is available on the WRI website but is well worth investing in a paper copy because it is the kind of thing you may want to carry around with you as you ponder a particular issue and campaign. It may be the best UK£7 you have ever spent (ordering details via the same link above, and INNATE also has copies).

The handbook is divided into different sections; an introduction to nonviolence, developing strategic campaigns, organising effective actions, fifteen case studies from very different societies and campaigns, and training and exercises, plus a glossary of terms and a list of further resources.

Joanne Sheehan starts off the introduction to nonviolence by saying "our working definition of nonviolence is based on a desire to end all violence – be it physical violence or what's been called 'structural violence' and 'cultural violence'....without committing further violence." This piece goes on to spell out seven interlocking principles of nonviolence including choosing means consistent with our ends, seeking inclusive solutions, and transforming our anger rather than letting our anger transform us.

Howard Clark, April Carter and Michael Randle go on to refer to the scepticism about the power of nonviolence against entrenched, repressive regimes "where any overt resistance is liable to be brutally crushed". They mention ways of keeping resistance alive until larger scale rebellion is possible when popular anger becomes widespread, and also look at the continuum between a strong commitment to nonviolence as such and a "Willingness to use essentially nonviolent methods....but no commitment to avoid low level physical violence..."

The book then goes on to consider the role of nonviolence training, gender and nonviolence, conflict, and different kinds of power. All of this is important but an analysis of the kind of power exercised by different authorities in society can be vital to understanding how a campaign should develop, and what limitations are likely to exist.

The section on 'Developing Strategic Campaigns' begins with a consideration by Andrew Dey and Joanne Sheehan of "Why things don't 'just happen'". This includes bursting the myth that the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 simply happened because Rosa Parks was a tired old woman who refused to move from her seat to the back of the bus; rather the effectiveness of the thirteen month Montgomery Bus Boycott was "reliant on the years of organising and power-building that preceded it", and Rosa Parks at this stage was neither old nor particularly tired.

There is then detailed consideration, by Joanne Sheehan, Andreas Speck, and others, of strategy development. This is not particularly complex but it is involved and needs studying. It goes on then to look at the stages of successful social movements (Bill Moyer's 'Movement Action Plan') which is such an important tool in thinking through what kind of campaigning actions are appropriate at a particular juncture, and simply understanding why things are as they are (and not being too euphoric or downcast at a particular juncture in a campaign because that can be dangerous).

'Organising Effective Actions" is kicked off by Jorgen Johansen and Brian Martin. How many times are actions totally ineffective or even counter-productive? A key point here is deciding whether you are 'opposing' or 'promoting'. Next up comes Denise Drake and Steve Whiting on working in groups, including inclusivity and consensus. We ignore these issues, and fail to prepare, at our peril. Things can go wrong; if we have prepared as well as we possibly can then things can still go wrong but our responsibility for it happening that way should not be the same. But it doesn't all have to be heavy stuff – Majken Sorensen has a piece on 'Humour and nonviolent campaigns' including 'using humour wisely'. There are a number of other chapters dealing with forms of nonviolent action, roles, media, legal support, jail support and action evaluation. All of these are important parts of the whole.

The fifteen case studies chosen cover a wide range of issues in a wide geographical area – South Africa, Germany, Chile, South Korea, Colombia, Turkey, the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza, Israel, Kenya, West Papua, Afghanistan, and solidarity with Eritrea. As such there should be 'something for everyone' to learn from although I should emphasise in making this point that it is quite possible to learn from experiences, and approaches, in societies which are very different to the one we live in. There may be an approach which we have not thought of because it is seemingly outside of our culture – but it might be that freshness and difference which communicates to people. Appropriateness to our culture has to be considered but stretching cultural boundaries may be precisely what is required.

The section on training and exercises is an important one but in thirty-odd pages cannot be comprehensive. It does however include key exercises including parallel ('hassle') lines, visioning, pillars of power, spectrum of allies, "I could do that if...", and so on. However the resources guide includes other training manuals and web resources, as well as other resources relevant to nonviolence e.g. dealing with emotions and trauma, organisation, facilitation and decision-making, and gender.

The WRI 'Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns' is an important resource but it only becomes important when it is used in our thinking, preparation and action. It should be one for every activist's desk, table or bag. Go to the website to download or order a paper copy.

In closing it would be remiss not to say that INNATE has a variety of printed training materials, as well as material online divided into 'Nonviolence and nonviolent action' and 'Group work and dynamics', along with a training 'map'. If INNATE can help in any ways with resources or otherwise please get in touch to

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