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Revolutionary nonviolence

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In Sum

Revolutionary nonviolence emphasizes unity among radicals and proposes a militant nonviolent praxis based on revolutionary transformation and mass civil resistance.


Chicago 7 defendant Dave Dellinger; civil rights and feminist icon Barbara Deming in her essay “Revolution and Equilibrium”; the Plowshares movement.

For activists working for radical change, there is a useful distinction to be made between Gandhian, strategic and revolutionary nonviolence. Gandhian nonviolence is a combination of constructive, base-building programs and satyagraha, often interpreted in the Global North as a form of spiritual direct action. Strategic nonviolence see TACTIC takes a more tactical tack and focuses on the tactics enumerated by Gene Sharp. Meanwhile, as Gandhi himself noted, revolutionary nonviolence suggests that it is better to engage in violence than to do nothing in the face of oppression[1], and that any popular movement must push beyond mere reformist change that leaves structures of oppression intact, even though this requires active confrontation.

Indian activist Jayaprakash (JP) Narayan made important advances in this line of thinking, calling for “total revolution” in a framework that included anti-authoritarianism, non-orthodox Marxism and self-determination for all peoples. As a campaigner at the time of the Chinese communist revolution, JP’s main critique of Mao Zedong’s maxim that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun” was the simple observation that those with the most destructive weapons were never the masses of the population, but rather those with the most entrenched power and authority. JP suggested that Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (at least in its core intentions) bore striking similarities to satyagraha, in that both were meant to combat a profit-motivated mentality, and both sought to disarm the exploiting classes.

The greatest successes of the Chinese and Vietnamese strategy of people’s war — which calls for mobile tactics and the creation of clandestine fighting units — often lay in the implementation of popular education programs, the creation of self-sufficient economic units and the formation of mass-based organizations. The military successes were more ambiguous. Even in the heat of battle, some of the leaders of Africa’s liberation wars, most notably Amílcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau, commanded his followers to be “militants, not militarists.” The widely repeated South African dictum that “nonviolence just didn’t work” in the ultra-repressive context of the racist apartheid regime has been refuted in post-apartheid society, as even organizers of the armed struggle now openly question the ways in which authoritarian styles grew out of their military structures.

In the U.S. context, mainstream academics are beginning to discuss what many African American activists have quietly understood for decades: that the ideological and tactical differences between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Minister Malcolm X were never as contradictory or divergent as the popular narrative would have us believe. As each developed and matured, their analyses of the nature of the U.S. state, and the variety of approaches needed to resist it, increasingly converged.

The theory of revolutionary nonviolence demands a nuanced view of struggle, one that does not over-emphasize the dichotomy between nonviolent and armed revolutionaries — that neither celebrates passivity nor fetishizes confrontation. It embraces the contributions of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Ubuntu philosophy: the notion that everyone’s liberation is indelibly connected. Advocates of revolutionary nonviolence must include an adherence to strategic nonviolence, but also must maintain dialogues well beyond those who agree with that framework.

  1. [1] “It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts,” Gandhi said, “than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence.” Mahadev Desai, Day-to-Day with Gandhi (Secretary’s Diary) Vol. ll (Rajghat, India: Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan, 1968), p. 175. See also: Mark Shepard’s Mahatma Gandhi and His Myths: Civil Disobedience, Nonviolence, and Satyagraha in the Real World, http://www.markshep.com/peace/Myths.html

Matt Meyer is a long-time leader of the War Resisters League and a founder of the anti-imperialist collective Resistance in Brooklyn (RnB). His solidarity and writing includes co-authorship with Pan-African pacifist Bill Sutherland of Guns and Gandhi in Africa, of which Archbishop Tutu commented: “Sutherland and Meyer have begun to develop a language which looks at the roots of our humanness.” Meyer’s work in education includes a ten-year stint as Multicultural Coordinator for NYC’s Alternative High Schools, and work on the Board of the Peace and Justice Studies Association. He can be reached at mmmsrnb@igc.org.

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