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November 2007

Pragmatic and principled dimensions of nonviolence

Nonviolence is not a very exact term. It not only describes a whole class of activities, but also describes attitudes and life-style. The debate among nonviolent activists is whether the latter are preconditions to the first, or whether nonviolence is a principle or a technique (1). Both approaches hold nonviolence as an efficient instrument and an ethical means for dealing with conflict and political strife because it tries to minimise damages and casualties. Both also agree that nonviolence might be used for reformist or for revolutionary purposes (2), and that it may be used to promote social change (nonviolent action, nonviolent uprisings (3) etc.) and to prevent unwelcome changes (social defence or civilian-based defense (4)). The biggest differences between the two approaches lie in the nature of commitment (5), the assumed relationship between means and ends, the approach to conflict in general, the attitude towards the opponent with the assumed way of how nonviolence “works”, and the mentioned issue of nonviolence as a way of life.

It is certainly possible that the difference between both approaches might be an ideological rather than an empirical question. On the one hand, elements of coercing the opponent can be found in campaigns of principled nonviolent leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King (6). Any action has an impact on the opponent. The effect of this action, whether coercive or persuasive, may depend on the opponent’s perception and the cost he is willing to incur. For example: Gandhi’s death fast in 1948 (7) made his opponents give in, not because they were convinced, but because they felt that the political costs of Gandhi’s death would be too high. This same action carried out by unknown and widely despised Kurdish prisoners in Turkey led to more than twenty deaths (May 2001). On the other hand, many defenders of the pragmatic approach might profess an ethical foundation for themselves, but believe that they should not impose their convictions on others, and that they might better win support by using rational- pragmatic arguments (8). Certainly, if the activists manage to convey to their opponent that they do not hate him, that they are concerned about his well being, and that they are ready to consider his interests, this might produce a positive dynamic in the conflict situation, which could not have happened otherwise. However, there might still be an element of coercion involved: “Clearly, life is not a choice between violence and no violence. It is a choice between violence and less violence; the latter sometimes expressed through the medium of nonviolence (9).”

Notes :

  • (1) : See Burrowes 1996 : 98 pp. for an overview of a debate with too many contributions to quote them all. The best-known protagonist of the ‘pragmatic’ approach is perhaps Gene Sharp.

  • (2) : Burrowes 1996 : 100f

  • (3) : A standard book on the latter is Theodor Eberts “Nonviolent Uprising” (Gewaltfreier Aufstand, 1981) which, unfortunately, to my knowledge has never been translated to English.

  • (4) : The probably best-known protagonists of social or civilian-based defence are Gene Sharp, Adam Roberts, Brian Martin, Robert Burrowes, Jean-Marie Muller and Theodor Ebert.

  • (5) : Many protagonists of principled non-violence maintain that commitment has to have a religious base (see Nagler 1999).

  • (6) : See Burrowes 1996 : 117pp, Müller/Schweitzer 2000

  • (7) : Burrowes 1996 : 119

  • (8) : Theodor Ebert is certainly one of these persons.

  • (9) : Burrowes 1996 : 123