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Seven Principles of Nonviolence


Michael N. Nagler


There has been a dramatic upsurge in episodes of nonviolent resistance since the days of Gandhi and King. Nonviolence can be a safe, effective, and lasting way to defeat injustice; in fact scholars have recently found that it can be twice as effective as violence in dislodging unjust regimes and usually three times as fast. Nonviolence takes courage and determination, but like any other science, it also takes some knowledge of how it works and a good strategy for applying that knowledge. It is extremely helpful that some leaders from successful nonviolent campaigns, like the student-led Otpor movement in Serbia, have found new ways to share what they have learned with others; but many people today still find themselves caught up in a nonviolent uprising or other kind of movement without having had the chance to learn about it. Here are some general principles for carrying out nonviolent action more safely and effectively, while drawing upon nonviolent practices from your own cultural heritage. They derive from two basic guidelines that we can bear in mind always:

   - We are not against other people, only what they are doing.

   - Means are ends in the making; nothing good can finally result from violence (and in the long run only good can come from nonviolence)٭.


1. Respect everyone including yourself. The more we respect others, the more effectively we can resist the disrespect they are offering us. Never use humiliation or accept humiliation from others; that degrades everyone. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere (MLK, Jr.), and the same is true of human dignity. Here its handy to remember that nobody can degrade you if you refuse to accept their low image of you.

The real success in nonviolence, where it is most different from violence, is its power to heal not just injustices but relationships. Even when faced by extreme violence, like war, Gandhi felt it was possible to hate the sin, not the sinner.' In 1942, when India, held down by the British, feared a Japanese invasion, he advised his countrymen:

If we were a free country, things could be done nonviolently to prevent the Japanese from entering the country. As it is, nonviolent resistance could commence the moment the Japanese affect a landing. Thus, nonviolent resisters would refuse them any help, even water. For it is no part of their duty to help anyone to steal their country. But if a Japanese had missed his way and was dying of thirst and sought help as a human being, a nonviolent resister, who may not regard anyone as his enemy, would give water to the thirsty one. Suppose the Japanese compel resisters to give them water, the resisters must die in the act of resistance.

2. Always include Constructive Programme. Concrete action is always more powerful than mere symbolism, especially when that concrete action is constructive: setting up schools, cottage industries, cooperative farms, etc. Gandhi launched a program of eighteen projects that enabled Indians to take charge of their own society, making it much easier for them to dismiss British rule and lay the groundwork for their own democracy when freedom came. Constructive work has many advantages:

- It enables people to break their dependency on a regime, by creating their own goods and services. You cannot get rid of an oppressor when youre depending on him for something essential.

- Its proactive; you are not just reacting to offenses but taking charge. This helps you shed passivity, fear, and helplessness. At the same time,

- It is not (necessarily) confrontational. Its revolutionary potential is not always obvious to your opponent, or threatening. Thus it can do its work without provoking unnecessary violence in response.

- It gives a movement continuity, as it can go on at times when direct resistance is not advisable.

- It builds community. Studies have shown that working together is the most effective way to unite people. CP also reassures the general public that your movement is not a danger to the social order.

And, most importantly,

- CP builds the infrastructure that will be needed when the oppressive regime falls. Many an insurrection has succeeded only to find a new set of oppressors rush into the vacuum.

So a good guideline to follow is: Be constructive wherever possible, obstructive wherever necessary.

3. Be aware of the long term. Nonviolent action always has positive results, sometimes more than we intended. In the 1950s, when China was passing through a severe famine, the United States branch of Fellowship of Reconciliation organized a mail-in campaign to get President Eisenhower to send surplus food to China. Some 35,000 Americans took part. Our message to the President was a simple inscription from Isaiah: "If thine enemy hunger, feed him." There was no response apparently. But twenty-five years later we learned that we had averted a proposal to bomb targets in Mainland China during the Korean War! At a key meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the President announced, Gentlemen, since 35,000 Americans want us to feed the Chinese, this is hardly the time to start bombing them!

Violence sometimes works, that is, forces a particular change, but in the long run it can be counted on to create more misery and disorder. We do not have control over the final results of our actions, but we can have control over the means we use, including even our feelings and the state of our mind. Remember this handy formula:

            Violence sometimes works but it never works (i.e., makes things or relationships better). Nonviolence sometimes works and always works.

In nonviolence, you can lose all the battles but still go on to win the war!

4. Know your real goal(s). There are some things on which we cannot compromise, like human dignity, but if we are clear about our principles, we should be ready to change tactics or compromise on anything else. Avoid making symbols out of inessentials, therefore. At the level of principle there will tend to be less conflict, and after all we are not in a power struggle (though the opponent may think that way): we are in a joint struggle for human dignity.

5. Look for win/win solutions. that will satisfy the real needs of all parties. Remember that you are trying to rebuild relationships, if at all possible, not score victories. In a conflict, we can feel that in order for one side to win, the other has to lose; but this is a not true. In nonviolence we do not seek to be winners, or rise over others; we seek to learn and to make things better for all.

During intense negotiations over the Montgomery, Alabama segregation laws, Martin Luther King, Jr. made an interesting observation that he relates in Stride Toward Freedom. An attorney for the city bus company who had obstructed the African-American people's demands for desegregation revealed the real source of his objection: "If we granted the Negroes these demands they would go about boasting of a victory that they had won over the white people; and this we will not stand for."

Reflecting on this, King advised the participants in the movement not to gloat or boast, reminding them: "Through nonviolence we avoid the temptation of taking on the psychology of victors." The "psychology of victors" belongs to the age-old dynamic of me-against-you, but the nonviolent person sees life as a "co-evolution" toward loving community in which all can thrive. Gloating over our victories can undo our hard-won gains.

6. Know Your Power. We are conditioned (especially in the West) to think that power grows out of the barrel of a gun. There is indeed a kind of power that comes from threats and brute force but it can be rendered powerless if we refuse to comply. There is another kind of power that comes from truth, and we can employ it to awaken the conscience of an opponent. By taking on, rather than inflicting suffering, by refusing to accept injustice but remaining open to the conversion of the other, we can, as Gandhi said, not only speak to the head but move the heart also. This is known as Satyagraha, or truth force. If petitions and conversation have failed, Satyagraha is the next step. In extreme cases we may have to offer Satyagraha at the risk of our life (which is why it is good to be very clear about our goals!). Do this with care. History, and often our own experience, has shown that even bitter hostilities can melt with this kind of persuasion that seeks to open the eyes of the opponent rather than coerce him or her. When a dictator refuses to step down, for example, nonviolent coercion may be required by the simple economy of suffering; but whenever possible we should use the power of patience and persuasion that comes from enduring rather than inflicting suffering and leads to lasting change. Drastic methods like fasting should be used only as a last resort. (For more on how and when to use fasting, see our website).

7. Know Your Legacy. We do not need to reinvent the wheel! To know the history of nonviolent movements and to be in touch with others involved in similar efforts today can help us avoid costly mistakes (see our website for resources). Always be aware that if you are using nonviolence with courage, determination, and a clear strategy, you will probably succeed; and even if you seem not to, win you will be playing your part in a great transformation of human relationships that our future depends on.

These six principles are founded on a belief that all life is an interconnected whole and that when we understand our real needs we are not in competition with anyone. In fact, as Martin Luther King said, We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. It is our privilege to live out the promise of that vision.

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