15-M: Notes on Nonviolence

14.08.2011 - Madrid - Rafael de la Rubia

The term ‘nonviolence’ is relatively new. The first (1) reference to it appeared in European magazines in the 1930s talking about a novel form of struggle carried out by an Indian lawyer against the British Empire. Against all the odds, and without armed confrontation, Gandhi got the British – the superpower of the time – to abandon India “voluntarily”.

The term non-violence in Spanish doesn’t even appear in the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy which doesn’t help us clear up a certain confusion for how to use it.

There is a colloquial form of the term that is also used by parts of the media when events are described as “taking place in a climate of nonviolence” or “we want schools to be environments of nonviolence”. In these cases we are referring to situations where there is no aggression, mistreatment or clashes beyond what is acceptable. In general it refers to physical nonviolence.

There is a second meaning of “nonviolence” where reference is being made to a more profound and developed issue that implies an existential position, a certain ethic and specific conduct. This is what I will further develop here.

The background to “nonviolence” is found in the principle of “ahimsa” (the refusal to exercise any form of violence against an individual or nature) which comes from Jainism, in the 6th century BC. Mahatma Gandhi developed his form of nonviolence based on this principle.

To speak of nonviolence obliges us to review what we understand by violence. The most common form of violence to understand is physical aggression. But we will go beyond this. If we go back to the RSA dictionary we find that violence is: “the action and effect of forcing, to force oneself or to go against the natural way of proceeding.” For the word ‘violent’ it adds: “to work with momentum, force, abruptly or with extraordinary intensity… to work against the regular way or without reason or justice.” But we can’t go very far with these definitions.

Let’s see another source, the dictionary of New Humanism (2) where it says:

*“VIOLENCE. (L. violentia, from violens (-entis), violent). The simplest, most frequently employed, and most effective way of maintaining power and supremacy, for imposing one’s will on others, for usurping the power, property, and even lives of others. Advocates of violence of every persuasion justify it as a means to achieve “good” or “useful” ends and results. That focus is dangerous and mistaken, however, since it leads to apologies for violence and the rejection of non-violent means. It is customary to categorize violence as direct, as individualised (authority of father over child), or as indirect, “codified,” usually corresponding to social institutions and official policies (wars, power of a dictator, single-party power, religious monopoly). There are also other ways of categorizing violence: as physical or psychological; as open or concealed. In society, other more precise shades of violence can be observed: at the level of the family, of the nation, of world politics, as well as in the relationship between human beings and nature, with other animal species, etc. All around we can observe one or more of these, manifestations of violence, carried out to resolve problems or to achieve desired results, at the cost of harming or inflicting suffering on another individual. Often, the person exercising violence believes they are acting in a just manner. This is the origin of the concept of distinguishing violence as “black” (unjustified) or “white” (justified).”* End of quote.

Violence has diversified and penetrated all walks of life as evidenced by; economic violence (the exploitation of some human beings by others with pitiful salaries, reductions in rights, creation of material dependency, child labour, unfair taxes, economic wars, dictatorship of the market, etc.); political violence (with the dominion of one or few parties, the two-party system, totalitarianism, exclusion of citizens in decision making, wars, the armed struggle for power, non-separation of powers, etc); ideological violence (with the imposing of official viewpoints, banning of free thought, subordination of the media, manipulation of public opinion, the propagation of concepts of a violent and discriminating nature that are convenient for the ruling elite, veto of all options that criticise the system, etc.); religious violence (with subjugation of individual interests to the requirements of the church, severe control of thought, prohibition of other beliefs and heresy, infiltration of religion into other fields such as politics, education, liberties, etc.); domestic violence (with the exploitation of women, control of children by parents, or of parents by children, etc.); educational violence (with authoritarianism in school, corporal punishment, discrimination, prohibition of free programmes of teaching, etc.); institutional violence in the army and the police (arbitrariness of those in charge, unquestioning obedience, punishment, torture, state terrorism, repression of protests, etc.); cultural violence (censorship, exclusion of innovative currents, prohibition of publishing certain books, the dictates of bureaucracy, imposition of some cultures at the expense of others, etc.) There is also gender violence (unequal pay, greater demands, less rights, or discrimination due to gender); generational violence (when because of old age people are considered incapable and young people are considered violent); psychological violence (when others are manipulated through fear, underestimated, and have their negative traits reinforced, etc).

In the majority of cases physical violence is one link more in a chain of violence of many forms. The correlate of all forms of violence is discrimination. Violence is not something new; it’s an integral component of the current system. It is a both a consequence and a cause with some forms of violence chained to others. Until recently violence was more or less controlled and hidden. Now, however, it is coming to light and is out of control. The media feeds it. It’s not that before there wasn’t mistreatment in the family or exploitation at work, the difference is that today we all know it.

If we were to review the origins of our society, how states and nations were formed, we would see that everyone was made through the use of force; physical violence in a first moment, to then develop all the other forms of violence. It’s the winners of wars who say how the economy, law, religion, etc must be. It is they who write history: their version of events. So has the world been organised since ancient times, although it took a special dimension with the emergence of empires and then nation states. Nearly all institutions created were backed up by armies or emerged directly from wars. So it started with physical violence in order to then be projected into other social spheres that, thanks to the development of technology, gave life to new forms of violence.

On the other hand, the background to non-violent struggle is varied and relatively recent: the clearest reference is the mass movement headed by Mahatma Gandhi which developed in India in the first part of the 20th century, followed by the struggle for civil rights by African Americans in the USA under the direction of M. L. King and also the activity developed by Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana.

The concept of nonviolence includes non-violent forms of protest that continue to live and unfold in the world. Daily, massive interventions by organised workers, meetings and protest demonstration, strikes, women’s and students’ movements, countryside protests, printing of leaflets, posters and newspapers, Radio and TV interviews, multitudinous anti-war and anti-corruption demonstrations, as well as massive numbers of people voting or refusing to vote in moments of crisis, all of these are examples of struggle. More recently are the so-called Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia and so many other countries where the population took to the street without violence. The 15-M and other European movements also have this germ of methodology where ethics and the practice of nonviolence are to be found. In other cases demands take the path of violence, with the result that they are repressed and suffocated or lead to civil war which comes with a high human cost and social regression.

I take the opportunity to clarify a frequent confusion, because the terms nonviolence and pacifism have become interchangeable when in reality the latter is not a method of action nor a lifestyle, but rather a constant denunciation of armed conflict.

Pacifism is a moral and political principle that recognises human life as the supreme social and ethical value. Pacifism is an attitude that rejects war and weapons. So its supreme value is to look after maintaining peace between ethnic, religious and social groups, between nations and groups of countries. It includes respect for the dignity of the individual, groups and peoples and human rights in general. The philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell (3), was one of the most iconic pacifists to confront the nuclear arms race and violence in general.

Nonviolence on the other hand is an active attitude when facing the world which works with the “void” to power, promoting condemnation, repudiation and non-cooperation with violence and, ultimately, civil disobedience in the face of institutionalised injustice (4).

We could even say that, “Nonviolence is the methodology of action of pacifism and, therefore, the best tool for the liberation of social suffering.”

Criticism of nonviolence comes from pragmatists who argue that it is “inefficient” because, according to them, instilling this kind of methodology into our society makes citizens docile and weak, and that it doesn’t either respond to or confront the violence of an unjust system that must be fought. These people have not understood the profundity of nonviolence; they have confused it with a certain form of weak and naïve pacifism. Gandhi said:

There is no greater bravery than the refusal to bend the knee to an earthly power, no matter how great, doing so without any aggression…” (5)

In summary

To speak of nonviolence is to touch on a new concept of social struggle. Nevertheless, this is not separate from the daily struggles, as the majority of social transformations are done with nonviolent behaviour. We must distinguish between pacifism—a sensibility against wars and weapons—and nonviolence—more a methodology of action that denounces and struggles against, not only physical violence, but rather against all kinds of violence: economic, racial, religious, generational, gender, psychological, even moral violence.

Violence works by denying one part of another person’s existence, one part of their intention, one part of their being. In extreme cases it can end up totally denying and taking away existence. The situation today is that violence is an integral part of the system in which we live, without it this system wouldn’t work.

There is increasing support for the idea that nonviolence is the only form of struggle that has a future in this historical moment, as, among other things, this violent system has the resources to beat all forms of violent struggle, but it doesn’t know how to act against organised nonviolence.

Note: In the next article we will cover the issues of personal violence and nonviolence, tactics and techniques of social and personal nonviolence and active nonviolence.

(1) It seems that the first book that included the term nonviolence is by Richard Gregg, “The Power of Nonviolence”, published by Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmadabad India. First edition in India in 1938.

(2) The Dictionary of New Humanism. Silo. World Centre of Humanist Studies, Moscow 1996.

(3) Bertrand Russell, University of Cambridge Professor, Presided over the tribunal that judged the Vietnam War crimes.

(4) Henri David Thoreau, in his book Civil Disobedience, is the first to present the foundation of this methodology.

(5) M. Gandhi. Reflections on Non-Violence. Errepar. 1998

Rafael de la Rubia is a member of the World Coordination Team of World without Wars and Violence

Categories: Europe, International, Opinions, Politics


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