Conducting Conflicts Without Violence

Gene SharpGene Sharp in Toronto.

Gene Sharp

The goals of peace research are certainly laudable, but I have to make a confession. I have never been happy with being called a peace researcher, although I have been called that a number of times. It seems to me the term is both too limiting -- for example, what about research on dictatorships, genocide, and oppression? -- and perhaps not limiting enough. Is everything labelled "peace research" of equal relevance and urgency?


The difference between my judgment and that of most peace researchers largely accounts for my having gone a different direction.

I see conflict in society as inevitable and often desirable. It is basic to establishing and maintaining freedom and justice. We need to face the reality that many acute conflicts exist on which people feel unable to compromise on their objectives and principles. Those conflicts are therefore not resolvable by negotiations and conflict resolution measures -- processes that have other positive uses, but not for issues of no compromise. Attempts to stifle some conflicts can be very harmful, resulting both in increased acute conflict, such as terrorism, if unsuccessful, and harsh repression, if the efforts to stifle conflict are successful.

The most serious problems in conflicts arise not from the conflict itself but from the use of violence to conduct a conflict. There exists an alternative technique -- nonviolent action or nonviolent struggle -- which has replaced the use of violence in many conflicts.

The solution to achieving peace lies in at least one contender in the conflict substituting nonviolent struggle for violent struggle as the way to achieve their objectives. And we know that that is possible because it has often happened.

The increase in such substitutions will be assisted by a variety of efforts:

And all this results in reducing reliance on war and other violence, which is to expand the areas of peace in ways compatible with freedom and justice.

The origins of nonviolent action

My own research began in the 1960s with a preoccupation about these matters. How could one not simply oppose and denounce war and violence, but also get rid of it? That seemed to me an important question. And it seemed clear to me that violence and war were often used rationally to conduct a conflict and to gain certain objectives. If some of those objectives are non-compromise issues, then one possibility might be to find another means of conducting the conflict that was not violence and was not war.

Such an alternative way of conducting conflicts in fact existed. This other technique for conducting acute conflicts had been called by a variety of names; I chose at the time to call it nonviolent action.

I spent quite a few years on such questions as "What is that technique of struggle, and what is its theory of power? What are its methods, what is something of its history, how does it operate in conflicts against violently repressive regimes? And if it does succeed, why does it succeed and how -- what are its mechanisms of change?" And that inquiry became The Politics of Nonviolent Action.

I had done some earlier studies on what might be called principled nonviolence -- ethical or religious nonviolence, or various types of pacifism. And those are important; but I concluded after minimal study that they were a separate phenomenon from what was now called nonviolent action.

Unfortunately, the practice of calling both such beliefs and the technique of struggle by the single word "nonviolence" was already becoming common, and continues today. It's a bad choice of terminology because it's confusing. It's like lumping all food under the one name "food," making it impossible to distinguish strawberries from bloody red steaks. We have to change our terminology and throw the word "nonviolence" away except for certain very specialized technical uses.

A second approach is to conduct some generalized analyses of the application of the technique of nonviolent struggle to real problems that human societies face. If it's an issue where we may have strong opinions but where alternative resolutions don't really make a lot of difference, we can settle our disputes with compromise, negotiation, conflict resolution, and the like. For example, if you're all in charge of redecorating the room you're now sitting in, some of you may want to make it chartreuse, some of you may want to make it white and some of you may want to make it pink. You don't have to kill each other to decide what color paint you'll use. It's not that big a deal.

But if the outcome of a particular conflict determines whether your people are all going to be slaughtered; where this invader is going to come in and dominate your population; whether this political or military clique is going to set up a dictatorship; whether people are going to be discriminated against on the basis of their skin color; whether you are to have religious freedom or not: issues of this type are not so clearly resolved by compromise. We need to look at those areas where people would usually say they have ultimately no choice but to fight -- and to fight, to them, has usually meant to use violence.

One of those areas is national defence against external aggression. We began to adapt it from 1964 onwards; first under the title of civilian defence and later as civilian-based defence. We organized advance preparation of non-cooperation in defiance against foreign invasion, occupation, and coups d'état. A modest literature -- which now exists in a number of languages -- developed, and the idea began to have practical impact. The text of the book Civilian-Based Defence was used by the government defence planners in newly-merging independent Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1991 in planning their defence strategies against attempts by the Soviet Union to regain its control over these states.

There's other evidence of the spread of these ideas: no grand successes on the scale that I might have expected or hoped, but there have been some.

A second area is the question of combatting and removing dictatorshs, oppression, and genocide. We have been offering training for nationals of countries in the use of nonviolent struggle for meeting specific current needs -- as how to remove the dictatorships and oppression now existing in Burma, Nigeria, Tibet, Cuba, Iran, and elsewhere. It is urgent to provide support for the nonviolent democratic struggle groups in those countries through financial assistance, educational activities, and international action and demonstrations.

Finally another area where nonviolence can be useful is in addressing is the problems posed by coups d'état -- the unconstitutional seizures of the state apparatus and therefore of society. Many of the dictatorships in the world have come into control of the state by conducting coups, and new seizures of power take place all the time; look at Cambodia or Sierra Leone for current examples. There is no constitutional remedy for coups d'état. There is a major gap in democratic theory and technique that prepared noncooperation could help to fill. Therefore, the most valuable contribution will be to spread nondogmatic knowledge of the nature of civilian-based defence against aggression and coups d'état in a variety of countries, especially adding initially a modest civilian-based resistance component while the major reliance on military means continues.

In order to carry out these tasks there are roles for many people of varying capacities, resouces, and interests, to participate.


Gene Sharp is senior scholar at the Albert Einstein Institution, Cambridge MA USA. Link here to his 198 methods of nonviolent resistance.


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