Non-violence is not naive, unrealistic or useless

Non-violent resistance is more successful than violence

We are advocates of the abolition of war, we do not want war; but war can only be abolished through war, and in order to get rid of the gun, it is necessary to take up the gun.

That is not a summary of popular attitudes to war in Ukraine. It is a quotation from Mao Tse Tung's Problems of War and Strategy, published in 1938.

While few would state it as baldly as Mao Tse Tung, the vicious attacks on Ukraine have made many believe he may not be wrong.

Putin will understand nothing except greater force, the argument runs. If he is not defeated by military force, he may become embroiled in a war of attrition that he cannot win, an ongoing insurgency like the one that eventually forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan in 1989.

Either way, in the short or long term, meeting violence with violence is perceived as the only possible solution. That may or may not be correct in the case of Ukraine but we should at least be open to the possibility that non-violent resistance is not unrealistic, naive or useless.


Erica Chenoweth, now a Harvard professor, was sceptical about non-violence, too. In the early 2000s, her research had been on terrorism. Her belief was that only violent force achieved major political or social change.

At an academic workshop organised by the International Center of Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) she encountered many case studies of successful non-violent protest, including people power in the Philippines, which ended Ferdinand Marcos' 20-year dictatorship.

A researcher at ICNC, Maria Stephan, challenged Chenoweth to work with her on systematically analysing the data on non-violent resistance, in order to move beyond just anecdotal evidence.

For two years, the women collected data on both violent and non-violent strategies, eventually settling on 323 examples from 1900 to 2006.

Counter-intuitively, their research showed that in the aggregate, non-violent campaigns were twice as successful, with 53 per cent of non-violent movements succeeding in their aims versus 26 per cent of violent campaigns. These campaigns also did far less damage to society.

Their 2008 book, now considered a classic, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, also explains that non-violent resistance is not a panacea and is not without cost. Nonetheless, further research shows that even after apparent failure, countries with non-violent campaigns were about 10 times more likely to transition to democracies within a five-year period than countries in which there were violent campaigns. This may be because non-violent campaigns attract, on average, four times as many participants.

Chenoweth’s later research shows that it takes about 3.5 per cent of the population to participate actively in campaigns to ensure serious change. In 2015, 25 per cent of Ukrainians favoured non-violent resistance, compared with 26 per cent who favoured violence.

Principled activists

Every major world religion has a strand within its tradition of non-violence. Mohandas Gandhi lived Hindu principles such as ahimsa, that is, not causing harm to living beings.

Gandhi, in turn, greatly influenced Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, the Baptist minister who took seriously Jesus's injunction to bring peace, not a sword. Dorothy Day lived her Catholic faith in a radical fashion, jailed time and time again for resistance to the Vietnam War.

These are what might be called principled activists, people who operate out of an ethical framework that also includes making your enemy better through forgiveness and dialogue. But, as Sharon Erickson Nepstad points out in her book, Non-Violent Struggle – Theories, Strategies and Dynamics, the majority of those who embrace non-violent struggle are not so much principled as pragmatic; they do it because it works.

Academic Gene Sharpe, whose pragmatism has led him to be dubbed everything from the “Machiavelli of non-violence” to the “Clausewitz of unarmed revolution”, shares this view. Unlike Gandhi, King and Day, Sharpe does not believe you need to reform or love your enemies. You just have to force them to stop doing evil things. He catalogued 198 ways to achieve this.

Think of Denmark, where almost none of the country's 8,000 Jews were apprehended by Nazis due to non-violent organising, or the 10,000 Norwegian teachers supported by 100,000 parents who prevented the Nazification of Norway's schools.

Right to defend

People have been loud in their praise, not just of president Zelenskiy, but of ordinary Ukrainian citizens arming themselves and taking to the streets to defend themselves.

There is a right to defend oneself against unjust aggression. The Ukrainians have shown extraordinary bravery. The media, however, do not celebrate or highlight to the same degree the non-violent actions of so many Ukrainians such as standing in the path of tanks, with no weapon except courage.

Mao Tse Tung missed something vital when he said that power came from the barrel of a gun. It also comes from ordinary people banding together to resist evil, even at great cost to themselves.

That is why those of us who propose non-military solutions should be willing to shoulder some of the biting pain, including real financial hardship as fuel and commodity prices soar. Otherwise, we can have no credibility regarding our claims to care what happens in Ukraine.