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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Number 282: September 2020

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). 

Social defence: an important part of nonviolent theory

‘Social Defence’ by Jørgen Johansen and Brian Martin, Irene Publishing, 2019, 173 pages.

Reviewed by Rob Fairmichael

You would expect a book by the authors concerned to be on the ball and authoritative (insofar as the latter is possible in a field which is not that developed) but this work is also clear and concise, and, within the length given, relatively comprehensive. If you want an introduction to this concept then you need go no further.

‘Social defence’ made some running in the 1980s and thereabouts (see e.g. report on the WRI-IFOR social defence conference in Bradford, 1990, in ‘Dawn Train’ No 10, page 18) but, as the authors point out, this subject has been somewhat neglected in the period since.

There will be more about definitions shortly but perhaps I would say that social defence – defence of people and their way of life – is actually a key element in overall nonviolent theory and persuading people of the possibilities of nonviolence. ‘Common sense’ says armies are necessary for ‘defence’ but once said armies are in existence then many are used for offence, and are a massive waste of resources in any case; if we can show that armed bodies are unnecessary, even detrimental, to the cause of astute defence of people and their way of life then nonviolence in general becomes a much more plausible option. This is arguably even more true in an era of weapons of mass destruction.

So, how do the authors define social defence? The back cover states “Social defence challenges deeply embedded assumptions about violence and defence…..Popular action against aggression and repression is a radical alternative – and a logical one” More concretely in page 13 they state “Social defence is nonviolent community resistance to repression and aggression, as an alternative to military forces. “Nonviolent” means using rallies, strikes, boycotts and other such methods that do not involve physical violence against others. Social defence has other names, including nonviolent defence, civilian-based defence and defence by civil resistance.”

The key part of the approach taken by Johansen and Martin is that it is to protect values and way of life and not territory. It can be used to protect people and their values against internal as well as external aggression - which is one reason why rulers and powers that be may not be too keen on instituting it. Authoritarian and tyrannical rulers would run far from empowering their own people to resist them more creatively and it is in essence therefore also a tool for buttressing real democracy.

They state clearly what they are trying to do in the book (page 20). It covers what you might expect to find in terms of theory, historical cases, possible allies, relatively recent developments and so on, including further reading; and it does not shy from at least mentioning some difficult questions. Building links with social movements in possible aggressor countries (in terms of external defence) is mentioned but there is a tricky question arising in relation to the automation of war, e.g. through drones and automated weaponry. In the invasion by the USSR of Czechoslovakia in 1968, oppositional fraternisation with the invading troops was so successful that some troops had to be withdrawn and replaced with non-Russian speaking troops from the Soviet far east and so on (as many Czechoslovak citizens spoke fluent Russian). Trying to fraternise and ‘turn’ a drone is not possible and its controllers may be thousands of miles away – and communicating with them is rather more difficult.

Nevertheless, social defence makes sense. The authors don’t dispute that there are, and will be, challenges and issues to be addressed.

They devote a chapter to the downside of military systems. This may be well understood by readers of this review but points include financial waste, environmental damage, the link to repression, self-justification (and resultant waste and corruption) within the military-industrial complex and so on. I was not aware or had forgotten that military carbon use is not included in national figures – a fact which would, for example, massively inflate the USA’s carbon use. What a travesty that is! They also deal with arms/military races, a feature of the current world situation involving not just the USA, Russia and China but different regions including the Middle East.

While the feminist movement is included later on as an ally I was surprised that the authors did not include the military, and military-type thinking, as a key element in misogyny and negative masculinist thinking which still bedevil our societies.

The authors are keen, quite rightly, to point out that many soldiers are caring and concerned members of their society, and to emphasise that it is the military system they are talking about. However in my limited and somewhat antique involvement with the military – which turned me into a believer in nonviolence - I would say that, whether inadvertently or not (and some of it would be ‘advertently’) the military – and I would emphasise more broadly military-type thinking - are natural allies of negative masculinist and macho values.

This is true however many women they try to fast track to leadership roles or how many peacekeeping operations they engage in. I believe it goes with the territory of preparing to be violent; regimentation and a preparedness to dehumanise an enemy (so as to be able to kill them), any enemy given to you by your political masters, goes hand in glove with macho values..They are, I believe, two sides of the one coin. Again, we are talking about the system rather than necessarily individuals. It would be my contention that military-type thinking – not just in the military but in society as a whole – is a key element in avoiding arrival at a feminist-friendly society.

The historical examples they cover where there was nonviolent resistance to aggression without any preparation include the Kapp putsch in Germany in 1920, the Ruhr 1923, the Algerian (French) generals’ revolt 1961, and Czechoslovakia 1968. Regarding the last they conclude (page 56) that “important lessons from Czechoslovakia 1968 are (1) remaining nonviolent is crucial; (2) resistance organised by the people is stronger than resistance directed by the government;(3) fraternisation is a powerful technique; (4) resilient communication systems providing accurate information are vital: (5) maintaining unity of the resistance is vital: (6) leaders need to understand the dynamics of nonviolent resistance.” These conclusions are close to their overall conclusions.

There are too many points mentioned to give a comprehensive overview of the book. The historical effectiveness of nonviolent resistance compared to violent is a key fact of which most people are unaware and which they refer to in relation to Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s research (page 98). The question of whether to rely on the state to institute social defence or go with civil society primarily is a question which they address, and you can guess their answer.

The book covers many other questions and issues. One is the concept of ‘social attack’ for change as well as ‘social defence’, and obviously also what it is that people want to defend. In terms of relatively recent developments they consider different aspects of the advent of social media – both use by progressive movements and how authorities can try to take advantage of, and use, these, or even close them off. Effective communication cannot depend only on a system which the powers that be (or would be) can control or shut down. They look at various allies for both introducing social defence and utilising it; I would personally add ‘the community sector’ as an important arena to their list. They also consider ‘what you can do’ in taking the issue forward.

One of the points raised is about producing a transitional plan, moving from military defence to social defence, with the purpose of raising awareness rather than as a blueprint (since that would come later if there was sufficient by in, and be much more comprehensive). I personally wrote a short piece looking at what a nonviolent defence for Ireland might look like back in 1983 which, dated though it may be, is available on the INNATE website (‘An Alternative Defence for Ireland’)

Their conclusions indicate quite rightly that this is not a concept which is suddenly going to be accepted. “Although social defence may not become a reality for many decades, it can serve as a guide for action, in a host of domains. Social defence involves increasing the capacity of ordinary people to resist external aggression, and this necessarily means increasing the capacity to resist their own government. Hence social defence provides a guide for community empowerment that can challenge many different types of domination….” (page 158)

‘Social defence’ is obviously not a well understood concept and this applies even within the peace movement. As stated, I believe it is a key concept and this is for a variety of reasons including undermining the legitimacy and applicability of military and violent structures and the military mindset, as well as for its role in strengthening and copperfastening the democratisation of societies. This book is an excellent starting point for those who wish to think about and study the matter further.

They refer to the focus on social defence 35 or 40 years ago. With a lot of work and a fair wind, the hope must be that if another book on social defence is written in forty years time then there will be concrete examples of countries and areas using nonviolent social defence which people will be able to reflect and build upon. There are countries, admittedly mainly small (Costa Rica being the best known), functioning perfectly well without an army. Social defence takes things to a different level in terms of active preparedness and a move forward for individual countries and the world.

For getting the (reasonably priced) printed book see

A copy of the book and links to the materials cited in this book can be found at


Copyright INNATE 2019