Nonviolent action: responses to its critics

Jonathan Sutton

This blog post borrows unashamedly from the style of an excellent piece by Brian Martin, entitled “Social defence: arguments and actions”.1 Where I have used Professor Martin’s arguments, they are referenced in the text; all other arguments have been developed by myself and in discussion with other post-grad students at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

The fact that nonviolent action can, has, and continues to topple dictatorships and threaten entrenched elites has become something of an established fact among activists, policy-makers and political scientists. The Colour Revolutions amongst the former Soviet states in the mid-2000s and the highly-publicised protests of the Arab Spring beginning in 2011, in particular, have also contributed to this becoming more widely known amongst the general public. There is now a large body of research involving case studies and statistical analysis showing that nonviolence is more effective, more democratic and is gradually becoming more popular than violent rebellion. In particular, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan’s book “Why Civil Resistance Works” has been instrumental in providing hard evidence for something that practitioners and some researchers have known for years: mass nonviolent action works, and it works well.2

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, however, when this message is spread through social media there are always those who deny that nonviolence is as good as it’s made out to be. They argue that nonviolence is passive, that it doesn’t work, that only violence can overthrow powerful governments. It couldn’t have possibly worked against the Nazis. What about the Rwandan genocide, eh? What good would a bunch of hippies sitting around singing ‘kumbaya’ do? There are even those who claim that nonviolence is a tool of oppressive, imperialistic governments that keeps people down and prevents them from achieving liberation. These arguments can be seen in the comments section of any blog post or online newspaper article that discusses nonviolent action.

It’s true that we don’t know everything about nonviolence yet. The academic research is in its infancy, and the track record of nonviolent revolutions has been mixed, especially as seen after the Arab Spring. However most objections to nonviolent action are, I think, typically based on misconceptions about what nonviolence is, misunderstandings of historical events, and unquestioned assumptions about violent conflict that are promoted in Western culture.

To respond to these accusations, I’ve collected and tried to summarise, accurately I hope, four of the most common arguments against nonviolent action that I’ve seen in forum discussions and comment threads. I’ve also offered some responses to these arguments, which could be used by those who want to defend nonviolent action from its critics, along with some comments on what I think are the relative pros and cons of these. I would very much welcome comment on whether you think these are persuasive arguments or not, if you have any other criticisms of nonviolence, or if you can think of any better responses.

As a pre-emptive note: I assume here that most people are familiar with the idea of nonviolent action, i.e., that it is not sitting around holding candles and singing ‘kumbaya’. Nonviolent action is purposeful, active, and often confrontational. It involves deliberate obstruction of opponents, public demonstrations of opposition, and other tactics that involve risk, strategy and careful organisation. For an overview, see Gene Sharp’s ‘From Dictatorships to Democracy’4, Kurt Schock’s work5, or Erica Chenoweth’s blog6, for starters. This post, instead, discusses some of the arguments against the use of nonviolent action, not the principles behind it. So, here they are.

Argument 1:

“Nonviolence might have worked in the case of Y, but it couldn’t possibly work against X.”

This is a general form of the argument that nonviolence has limited scope to work against various governments or systems. It is by far and away the most common argument against nonviolent action. The best way to respond to these claims, in my opinion, is to counter that nonviolence was or could have been successful in these cases. I’ve listed the most common varieties below, along with what I think are the best responses:

Nonviolence might have worked for Gandhi, but that’s only because Britain was a democracy.


The British Empire was in fact a brutal dictatorship in the colonies over which it ruled, using widespread violence to keep its subjects in line. It was far from the benevolent commonwealth that it is sometimes made out to have been today; the Qissa Khwani Bazaar and Amritsar massacres of peaceful, unarmed civilians by British troops are perfect examples of this. Despite this, Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent action were effective in driving out the colonialists. This shows that nonviolence really has worked against a violent, repressive government.

Nonviolence couldn’t have stopped the Nazis in WWII.


Mass nonviolent action was never tried by a large proportion of the population in Germany, so it’s impossible to say that it couldn’t have been effective. However, there were determined and effective campaigns of nonviolent resistance against Nazi occupation in Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, particularly involving the protection of local Jewish populations. There were also some smaller nonviolent actions carried out by German citizens in opposition to the Nazi regime during the war.7 Where it was tried, it was often very effective. For example, towards the end of the war, civilians from Württemberg, Hitler’s home district engaged in a spontaneous campaign of mass non-cooperation with the regime that made the district almost ungovernable.8 Although it’s true that the Nazis were toppled by Allied forces, popular noncooperation severely weakened the regime towards the end of the war, making it a lot harder for the regime to hold out against the Allies.


Tiananmen Square proves that nonviolence will only get you killed if the government is ruthless.


The student occupation of Tiananmen Square was deeply damaging to the Communist Party, which is why they needed to go to such great lengths to repress it.9 Recent findings have shown that the government had to negotiate with students occupying the square to make them leave, rather than just shoot them down.10 Furthermore, one of the reasons that troops cracked down on the protest is that the students were unable to maintain nonviolent discipline; an uncertain number of soldiers were wounded and killed during the crack-down, and there was rioting and fighting in the areas around Tiananmen Square.9 While the movement did fail, it was not as one-sided as most Westerners understand it to be; in a slightly different set of circumstances, the students might have been more successful in achieving their aims.

Note: This relies on challenging popular wisdom about the Tiananmen Square occupation, and might be difficult for people to accept without strong evidence. A good resource for this is the Wikileaks document release that showed that there was no mass slaughter of students in the square, and that the Chinese government had a great deal of difficulty in making the students give in. However, a lot of this evidence has been used by more radical and fringe writers around the internet to make conspiracy claims about CIA involvement in the events – you have been warned!11

Nonviolence couldn’t have stopped the genocide in Rwanda/the US invasion of Iraq/the purges in Stalinist Russia (etc.).


Like the previous examples, it’s possible to argue that nonviolent action was either not tried (and therefore cannot be dismissed as ineffective), that nonviolent action could very well have been effective, or that it was used and therefore our understanding of these cases is limited. For example, one of the factors that enabled the genocidaires in Rwanda to carry out the genocide was that they believed no-one was watching and that they would not be held accountable for their actions; it follows that a small, even unarmed or nonviolent outside force could have prevented much of the violence.12

As for Soviet Russia, determined dissidents found that the Stalinist purges were very difficult to carry out if you actually tried to resist, and the arrests couldn’t be made in public with others watching. Instead, the secret services tried their best to make sure that no-one even tried to nonviolently resist; they knew that they couldn’t keep people down if they were organised and determined.13

Note: Obviously all these responses require detailed knowledge of the individual cases. They can be effective, but are unlikely to be persuasive on their own because they confront beliefs about historical events – like the monolithic and unstoppable nature of the Nazi regime – that are inaccurate but deep-seated in Western culture and unlikely to be changed easily.14

Argument 2:

“There might have been some nonviolence in the case of XYZ, but what really changed things was armed struggle; nonviolent action was a sideshow”

Examples typically include the civil rights movement in the United States; the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa; anti-Colonial struggles; and the various protest movements in the post-communist states around the turn of the 21st century.

Response 1:

We should think carefully our own attitudes towards violent rebellion, and ask ourselves why it is that we think violence works. What is our evidence for saying this? The utility and desirability of violence in revolutionary struggles is something that’s deeply ingrained in our psyche, and is promoted by school, governments, the entertainment industry, and at times academia. By emphasising the role of violent struggle, those who benefit from militarism and violence (the arms industry, politicians, the military, and so on) encourage us to ignore the real impact that nonviolence has had, and give too much weight to violent struggle. The recent shift to focus on nonviolence is just the start of correcting this.

Response 2:

We need to think about who is telling us that violence worked in these cases. Those who used violence in, for example, anti-colonial struggles, have strong reasons to exaggerate their role in order to claim political legitimacy after the struggle is over. They can do this at the expense of the ordinary people who were involved in nonviolent action because they are often the ones who seized power on the strength of their arms. When we emphasise the importance of armed struggle we support this picture of events which is still used in many countries to justify the rule of dictatorial governments such as those in Rwanda, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, and Cuba.

Response 3:

This argument is often made by Marxists or anarchists who have a deep-seated commitment to using violence to achieve their ends. Nonviolence may have failed in some cases, but we also have so many cases where war and violence have only led to further violence, destruction and domination. Why should we think that violent rebellion and war, which are destructive and promote military styles of government, could lead to positive, peaceful societies?

Note: All of these responses are obviously quite similar. Most people who have a commitment to violent rebellion based on their ideology will talk about ‘necessity’ and ‘the only way’ instead of being able to give concrete historical examples of cases where violent overthrow has led to democratic societies. One example that is often used is the American Revolution; however, it has also been argued that this is an inaccurate view, and that most of the democratic principles that the American government is based on had already been established using nonviolent means before war broke out.15

Argument 3:

The evidence provided by researchers is flawed; people choose nonviolence where it’s more likely to succeed, and only resort to violence against particularly strong opponents. Of course violence is less likely to be successful, but nonviolence will only work against a weak opponent.

Response 1:

This is an obvious point, and something that Chenoweth & Stephan took into account when they designed their study. They show that measures of state power and capacity – including military expenditure, military size, urban population, region of the world, and lack of limits on the power holders – are not related to whether the opposition chooses to use violence or nonviolence. On top of that, the state’s power, measured in these terms, does not affect the chances of success of nonviolence movements compared to violent rebellion.

Comment: This is a strong response, and one that should satisfy those who are genuinely interested in understanding the research. There are weaknesses in Chenoweth & Stephan’s argument (for instance, whether they are really measuring state power), but most of the time these arguments are based on simple assumptions, and don’t have any evidence to back up the claim that people only choose nonviolence against weak states. The weight of evidence is on the side of nonviolence here. However, much of the academic research is unavailable to practitioners or the general public, and this may limit their ability to check the evidence for themselves.

Response 2:

There are many examples of cases where violent rebellion was tried and failed, and only nonviolent action succeeded. The mostly nonviolent first Intifada in Palestine gained more support for the Palestinian cause than years of violent rebellion.16 The People Power movement in the Philippines came after two long-running armed rebellions against the same government, and was the only movement to achieve success.14

Response 3:

In far too many cases, people resort to violent tactics without even trying nonviolence. They are already persuaded of the power of violence before they choose their tactics; this is not based on a simple analysis of how strong the state is. Everyone knows the saying, ‘If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail’. When dissidents are given easy access to guns, bombs and money, then violent action starts to look like the best, or only, option.

Response 4:

Violent and nonviolent campaigns often co-exist, even when both groups are facing the same situation and the same government. This suggests that some groups just value violence more, regardless of their situation.

Response 5:

Even if this were true at some point in the past, in most modern societies the state’s military power is so huge that violent rebellion would be a catastrophe. The only way for a region like Tibet to gain independence is through nonviolence; if they tried an armed uprising against the Chinese government, they would be crushed.

Argument 4:

‘Nonviolence’ is a colonialist concept that keeps peoples oppressed. It delegitimizes other forms of resistance and forces people to chose tactics that are ineffective.

This is a more recent argument that I’ve seen in blog posts on, for example, the use of violence and nonviolence by Palestinians protesting against Israeli occupation and settlements. Nonviolence has always had its critics, but the charge that it serves the interests of imperialist powers seems to be a relatively new one. In fact, it is a difficult charge to respond to and one of the more challenging arguments that I think nonviolent action researchers and advocates will have to face in coming years. There are several options that can be pursued in this case:

Response 1:

Although it’s true that the US and Western interests have recently started to promote nonviolent action, especially against regimes they oppose, it’s also true that there are dozens of cases where nonviolence has been used by indigenous, grass-roots organisations against colonial or economic oppression and dictatorial governments without input from Western scholars, policy-makers or politicians. These campaigns used tactics and strategies that arose out of their own living conditions, culture, and history, and were used because they were effective at driving change.

Response 2:

This assumes that nonviolent action is less effective than violent revolution. Since the evidence shows that nonviolence is more effective than violence, it is a tool of empowerment, not oppression.

Response 3:

Although it can be promoted by outsiders, nonviolence advocates would argue that it is unlikely to be effective if it is driven from the outside, because effective nonviolent action depends on the involvement and leadership of ordinary people, using tactics that are appropriate for their culture and situation. A government like the US can’t make nonviolence happen; it needs to be locally led. As nonviolence scholar Stephen Zunes points out in his Foreign Policy piece regarding the 2007 ‘Saffron revolution’ in Burma/Myanmar:

Implicit in such charges is that Burmese monks and other pro-democracy activists in that country are unable to initiate such actions themselves and their decision to take to the streets last fall in mass protests against their country’s repressive military junta came about because an octogenarian academic [Gene Sharp] in Boston had somehow put them up to it. One Burmese human rights activist, referring to his country’s centuries-old tradition of popular resistance, noted how the very idea of an outsider having to orchestrate the Burmese people to engage in a nonviolent action campaign is like “teaching grandma to peel onions.”14

Response 4:

Nonviolent action is simply a tool. It can be used to pursue neoliberal (or imperial, if you will) aims, but it can equally be used against those influences.

Response 5:

These arguments, as far as I can make out, are based on a limited view of what ‘nonviolence’ means. Much like the American conservatives who dismiss nonviolence as hippies sitting around singing songs, they see nonviolent action as limited to street protests and demonstrations. As stated in the introduction, nonviolent action is not passive; it embraces a huge variety of highly disruptive and often confrontational tactics, that can involve people from all walks of life. Street protests and marches are only one of these tactics.

Comment: To add to this response, it might be a good idea to include some examples of creative, unconventional nonviolent action, like the creation of shadow parliaments, ‘haunting’, shunning, pot-banging, and so on, to show that nonviolence is not limited to either sit-ins or street marches.

So that’s it, some common arguments against the use of nonviolence and, I hope, some reasonable responses for those of us who are interested in defending the idea from its critics. Thanks to Joe Llewellyn and Liesel Mitchel for their comments while I was drafting this piece.


1 Martin, Brian. (1991). “Social defence: arguments and actions”, in Shelley Anderson and Janet Larmore (eds.), Nonviolent Struggle and Social Defence. London: War Resisters’ International and the Myrtle Solomon Memorial Fund Subcommittee, pp. 99-107.

2 Chenoweth, Erica & Maria J. Stephan. (2011). Why Civil Resistance Works. Columbia University Press. Also see, for example, Erica Chenoweth’s TEDtalk on the subject: For earlier work on the subject see Gene Sharp (1973) The Politics of Nonviolent Action.


5 Schock, Kurt. (2005). Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

For misconceptions about the nature of nonviolence in particular, see Kurt Schock, (2013), “The Practice and Study of Civil Resistance”, Journal of Peace Research 50 (3): 277-290.


7 See, for example,

8 Stephenson, Jill (2009). “Popular opinion in Nazi Germany: mobilization, experience, perceptions: the view from the Württemberg countryside”, in Popular Opinion in Totalitarian Regimes: Fascism, Nazism and Communism, Paul Corner (ed.). Oxford University Press.

9 Nepstad, Sharon (2011). Nonviolent Revolutions. Oxford University Press.


11 See, for example,

12 Dallaire, Romeo, and Ray Dupuis. Shake hands with the devil. Seville Produtions (Dallaire), 2007.

13 Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich, and Edward E. Ericson. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-56: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. Vol. 1. Random House, 2003.

14 These responses taken or adapted from Martin’s original paper.

15 Spencer Graves, “Violence, Nonviolence and the American Revolution.”; “American colonials struggle against the British Empire, 1765 – 1775”

16 This response taken from Chenoweth & Stephan (2011).

17 For those interested more in the subject, Peter Myers has compiled a list of news stories regarding allegations of CIA involvement in nonviolent revolutions & personal attacks on Gene Sharp, along with defences of Sharp by Noam Chomsky and Stephen Zunes here: