Sometimes, the term "nonviolence" is often linked with or even used as a synonym for pacifism. However the two concepts are demonstrably different. Proponents of nonviolence may reject violence for purely practical reasons (e.g. "the other side has all the guns"), whereas a pacifist may reject the use of violence on moral or spiritual grounds.
In modern times, nonviolence has been a powerful tool for social protest. Mohandas Gandhi led a long nonviolent struggle against British rule in India. This movement helped India win its independence in 1947. About 10 years later, Martin Luther King Jr. adopted Gandhi's nonviolent methods in his struggle to win civil rights for African Americans. Then in the 1960's Cesar Chavez organized a campaign of nonviolence to protest the treatment of farms workers in California. These three leaders proved that people can bring about social change without using violence. 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.
If the military or police attacks the nonviolent resisters, the structural violence of society is exposed, thus making the oppressors, instead of the resistors (the oppressed), look bad. 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.
In his book, The Search For a Nonviolent Future, Michael Nagler explains how nonviolence works, how violence does not, gives many examples of nonviolence, describes how anyone can start nonviolence in their family and community, and much more.
Gene Sharp, in his book The Politics of Nonviolent Action, suggests that the absence of nonviolence from mainstream historical study is because elite interests are not served by the dissemination of techniques for social struggle that rely on the collective power of a mobilized citizenry rather than access to wealth or weaponry.
Most advocates of nonviolence draw their inspiration from religious or ethical beliefs, or from 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 nonviolence. Commonly, both of these dimensions may be present within the thinking of particular movements or individuals.
Love of the "enemy", or the realization of the humanity of all people, is a fundamental concept of principled nonviolence. Thus, this kind of nonviolent actor does not so much seek to defeat the "enemy", as to win them over to create love and understanding between all.
By contrast, the fundamental concept of pragmatic nonviolence is to create a social dynamic or political movement that can effect social change without necessarily winning over those who wish to maintain the status quo.
Less well known is the role that nonviolence has played and continues to play in undermining the power of repressive political regimes in the developing world and the former eastern bloc:
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, as quoted by Susan Ives in a 2001 talk
As a technique for social struggle, nonviolence has been described as "the politics of ordinary people", reflecting its historically mass-based use by populations throughout the world and history. Struggles most often associated with nonviolence are the non co-operation campaign for Indian independence led by Mohandas Gandhi, the struggle to attain civil rights for African Americans, led by Martin Luther King Jr., and People Power 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 non-violent resistance, concurred with this tenet of the method, 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.
Some proponents of nonviolence advocate respect or love for opponents. It is this principle which is most closely associated with spiritual or religious justifications of nonviolence, as may be seen in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus urges his followers to "love thine enemy," in the Taoist concept of wu-wei, or effortless action, in the philosophy of the martial art Aikido, in the Buddhist principle of metta, or loving-kindness towards all beings, and in the principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence toward any being, shared by Buddhism, Jainism and some forms of Hinduism. 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 said, "Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him." Focus on both nonviolence and forgiveness of sin can be found in the story of Abel in the Qur'an. Liberal movements within Islam have consequently used this story to promote Jewish ideals of nonviolence.
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, 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.
The central tenets of nonviolent philosophy exist in each of the major Abrahamic religious traditions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) as well as in the major Dharmic religious traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism). It is also found in many pagan religious traditions. Nonviolent movements, leaders and advocates have at times referred to, drawn from and utilised many diverse religious basis for nonviolence within their respective struggles.
Likewise, secular political movements have utilised nonviolence, either as a tactical tool or as a strategic program on purely pragmatic and strategic levels, relying on its political effectiveness rather than a claim to any religious, moral or ethical worthiness.
People 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 don't, 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.
Nonviolence has even obtained a level of institutional recognition and endorsement at the global level. On November 10th, 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.
Nonviolent action generally comprises three categories. The first, Acts of Protest and Persuasion, which include protest marches, vigils, public meetings and tools such as banners, placards, candles, flowers and the like; secondly, Noncooperation, the deliberate and strategic refusal to co-operate with an injustice; and thirdly, Nonviolent Intervention, the deliberate and often physical intervention into a perceived unjust event, such as blockades, occupations, sit-ins, tree sitting, truck cavalcades to name a few.
Hunger strikes, pickets, candlelight vigils, petitions, sit-ins, tax refusal, go-slows, blockades, draft refusal and public demonstrations are some of the specific techniques that have been deployed by nonviolent movements. Throughout history, these are some of the means used by ordinary people to counter injustice or reveal oppression or bring about progressive change.
Tactics must be carefully chosen, taking into account political and cultural circumstances, and form part of a larger plan or strategy.
A useful source of inspiration, for those seeking the best nonviolent tactics to deploy, is Gene Sharp’s list of 198 methods of nonviolent action, which includes symbolic, political, economic and physical actions. In early Greece, Aristophanes' Lysistrata gives the fictional example of women withholding sexual favours from their husbands until war was abandoned.
Activist/researcher George Lakey says there are three applications of nonviolent action, being for:
As a method of intervention across borders to deter attack and promote peaceful resolution of conflicts, the latter has met with several failures (at least on the level of deterring attack) such as the Human Shields in Iraq because it failed to ascertain the value of the goal compared with the value of human life in its context of war; but also many successes, such as the work of Project Accompaniment in Guatemala. Several non-governmental organizations are working in this area including, for example: Peace Brigades International, Christian Peacemaker Teams and the Nonviolent Peaceforce The primary tactics are unarmed accompaniment and human rights observation and reporting.
There are also many other great nonviolence leaders and theorists who have thought deeply about the spiritual and practical aspects of nonviolence, including: Leo Tolstoy, Lech Wałęsa, Petra Kelly, Thich Nhat Hanh, Dorothy Day, Ammon Hennacy, Albert Einstein, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, David McReynolds, Johan Galtung, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Ida Ford, Daniel Berrigan, Bacha Khan, Mario Rodriguez Cobos (pen name Silo) and César Chávez, Leanne Perry.
Many leftist and socialist movements have hoped to mount a "peaceful revolution" by organizing enough strikers to completely paralyze it. With the state and corporate apparatus thus crippled, the workers would be able to re-organize society along radically different lines.
For many, practicing nonviolence goes deeper than withholding from violent behavior or words. It means caring in one's heart for everyone, even those one strongly disagrees with, that is who are antithetical or opposed. By extrapolation comes the necessity of caring for those who are not practicing nonviolence, who are violent. Of course no one can simply will themselves to have such care, and this is one of the great personal challenges posed by nonviolence - once one believes in nonviolence in theory, how can the person live it?
Some green political parties, like the Dutch GroenLinks, evolved out of the cooperation of the peace movement with the environmental movement in their resistance to nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.
As Green Parties have moved from the fringes of society towards becoming more and more influential in government circles, this commitment to nonviolence has had to be more clearly defined. In many cases, this has meant that the party has had to articulate a position on non-violence that differentiates itself from classic pacifism. The leader of the German Greens, for example, was instrumental in the NATO intervention in Kosovo, arguing that being in favor of nonviolence should never lead to passive acceptance of genocide. Similarly, Elizabeth May of the Green Party of Canada has stated that the Canadian intervention in Afganistan is justified as a means of supporting women's rights.
This movement by Green leadership has caused some internal dissension, as the traditional pacifist position is that there is no justification ever for committing violence.
"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:
Lance Hill criticises nonviolence as a failed strategy and argues that black armed self-defense and civil violence motivated civil rights reforms more than peaceful appeals to morality and reason (see Lance Hill's "Deacons for Defense")
In his book How Nonviolence Protects the State, anarchist Peter Gelderloos criticizes nonviolence as being ineffective, racist, statist, patriarchal, tactically & strategical inferior to violence, 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 movements' most successful activists. 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.'
The efficacy of nonviolence was also challenged by 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." This argument reasons that nonviolent tactics will be of little or no use to groups that are traditionally considered incapable of violence, since nonviolence will be in keeping with people's expectations for them and thus go unnoticed. Such is the principle of dunamis (from the Greek: δύνάμις or, restrained power).
Niebuhr's criticism of nonviolence, expressed most clearly in Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) is based on his view of human nature as innately selfish, an updated version of the Christian doctrine of original sin. Advocates of nonviolence generally do not accept the doctrine of original sin (though Martin Luther King, Jr., did accept a modified version of Niebuhr's teachings on the subject).
Other authors or activists argue that property destruction can be strategically ineffective if the act provides a pretext for further repression or reinforces state power. Lakey, for instance, argues that the burning of cars during the Paris uprising of 1968 only served to undermine the growing working and middle-class support for the uprising and undermined its political potential.
Sabotage of machinery used in war, either during its production or after, complicates the issue further. Is saving a life by destroying property that will later be used for violence a violent act, or is passively allowing weapons to be used later the violent act (i.e. non-violence that leads to violence)? At a less abstract level, if someone is being beaten with a stick, it is usually not considered an act of violence to take the stick away, but if the stick falls to the ground and you break it, is that still considered a violent action?
In all of these debates it is relevant to consider the question of whether the perpetrator or victim of violence determines what is "violent". Also, relative power of parties and the type of "weapon" being applied is relevant to the issue. Palestinian children throwing rocks at Israeli tanks as an example cited. Force itself here becomes a relative measure of power and petty violence by the disenfranchised may be violence, but ultimately is not the same as overarching "power" to destroy.
First of all, I must make it clear that the Tibetan (rioters) has been non-violent throughout (the incident). ...the Tibetans rioters were beating Han Chinese, but only beating took place. After the beating the Han Chinese were free to flee. Therefore [there were] only beating, no life was harmed. Those who were killed were all results of accidents. ...the Han Chinese all went into hiding upstairs. When the Tibetan [rioters] set fire to the buildings, the Han Chinese remained in hiding instead of escaping, the result is that these Han Chinese were all accidentally burnt to death. Those who set and spread the fire, on the other hand, had no idea whatsoever that there were Han Chinese hiding upstairs. Therefore not only were Han Chinese burnt to death, some Tibetans were burnt to death too. Therefore all these incidents were accidents, not murder.