Nonviolent warfare: Questioning ends, not means

By Stephen Gowans

Brian Martin, a professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong in Australia, has written a reply to my article Overthrow Inc.: Peter Ackerman’s quest to do what the CIA used to do and make it seem progressive. Martin is the author of a number of books and articles on nonviolence, including Nonviolence against Capitalism, Technology for Nonviolent Struggle, and “Nonviolent strategy against capitalism” (in Social Alternatives, Vol. 28, No. 1, 2008, pp. 42-46.)

Martin’s criticism of my article is below. My reply follows.

Martin’s criticism

Stephen Gowans’ article presents a point of view but lacks credibility through not addressing contrary evidence.

Gowans omits to mention the efforts by ICNC (International Center for Nonviolent Conflict) and AEI (Albert Einstein Institution) to introduce nonviolent strategy to movements challenging US client governments. By discussing only those cases allegedly in support of US imperialism, he avoids having to explain equivalent cases apparently in opposition to US imperialism. This is a major flaw in his argument.

Economic sanctions, such as used against Iraq, are often presented as an alternative to violence, but they aren’t nonviolent because they rely on military force to be enforced. A voluntary boycott is a different matter, but what was applied to Iraq wasn’t a boycott of this sort. So Gowans’ implication that nonviolence can lead to mass death via sanctions is erroneous.

Nonviolent action can be used to attack governments or to defend them. Gowans gives only one side of the picture. There are plenty of cases in which nonviolent action has been used in defense of governments, for example to oppose coups.

A piddling amount of money in support of nonviolent movements doesn’t begin to explain their success. A government can easily match $1 million or $30 million – their security budgets typically run in the billions. So they could easily support nonviolent movements in their own support. If nonviolent action is so powerful, why doesn’t Gowans recommend this? Saying that nonviolent movements keep repeating slogans is not an explanation, because governments have far more resources to repeat their own slogans – and they do.

Nonviolent action is not about taking power, as Gowans would have it, but about waging conflict without using physical violence. It can be used to challenge (or defend) a government; it can also be used to challenge a successor government. It was used against the Iranian government in 1978-79 and is being used today against the current Iranian government.

Gowans says “The major proponents of NVR are not independent grassroots organizers, socialists or anarchists”. This is wrong. He doesn’t mention any of the hundreds of nonviolent struggles going on around the world with which ICNC and AEI have had no connection. He doesn’t mention War Resisters’ International, anti-nuclear direct action, ploughshares activists, rank-and-file worker direct action, anti-corporate globalization actions, environmental direct-action campaigns and many others. Gowans says that NVR is “not used by grassroots organizations in the West to force their own governments to change reactionary policies, …” I don’t know how anyone familiar with nonviolent action could make such a statement.

My reply

Brian Martin’s criticism is based on two confusions:

1. He misunderstands the sense in which I’ve used the term nonviolent resistance (NVR.)
2. He misunderstands my article to be an attack on nonviolent warfare as a method, rather than on the ends to which the most celebrated and large scale applications of NVR have been put.

I’ll show that I’ve used NVR in the sense in which Peter Ackerman, the subject of my article, uses it, and not in the different sense in which Martin apparently uses it. And I’ll show that defenders of Peter Ackerman and Gene Sharp have failed to recognize that the pair regards NVR (appropriately) as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. NVR by itself is neither good nor bad. The critical question is: What is it used for?

While supporters of NVR often regard nonviolent warfare as an end in itself (see for example Peace Magazine), we ought to be careful to distinguish means from ends. NVR, as defined by Peter Ackerman, following his docent, Gene Sharp, is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end is taking political power. This is the aim ICNC founder Ackerman (not me, as Martin seems to think) attributes to NVR. Indeed, Martin agrees. While denying that NVR is about taking political power, he defines two of three possible uses of NVR as: 1. challenging a government and 2. challenging a successor government. What does challenge a government mean, if not overthrow it, in order to take power? The third possible use, in Martin’s view, is to defend a government, in which case NVR is about defending political power. In either case, NVR is about political power – either taking it, or keeping it. In any event, if Martin thinks NVR isn’t about taking political power, he ought to address his comments to Ackerman. It was Ackerman, not me, who wrote, along with Jack DuVall in a 2002 Sojourners Magazine article, that NVR is “not about making a point, it’s about taking power.”

If NVR is about taking (or defending) political power, we ought to ask: To what end? The answer can be found in the answers to two key questions: (1) Who has promoted the most celebrated uses of NVR? (2) What have been the outcomes (and who has benefited)?

The biggest promoter of NVR is Ackerman, an immensely wealthy investor who is connected to the US foreign policy establishment through the Council on Foreign Relations, the premier U.S. ruling class think-tank. Robert Helvey, another visible proponent, is a 30 year veteran of the US Army who became interested in Gene Sharp’s destabilization techniques as a possibly more effective way of overthrowing foreign governments than armed struggle. Sharp, the “Clausewitz of nonviolence” as he’s known among NVR enthusiasts, has been aptly described as “being the first person to study rigorously the techniques of mass civil disobedience and place them in the context of traditional military strategy.” All three see NVR as an alternative or adjunct to traditional military methods, in pursuit of US foreign policy goals. It is NVR, in this context, and aimed at achieving imperial goals, that I’m concerned with in my article (not with the use of NVR to pursue anti-imperialist or socialist goals.)

Successful destabilization campaigns, of the type my article considers, have invariably led to the strengthening of U.S. financial and corporate interests abroad, and the coming to power of governments oriented to opening doors to US investment and exports. This has been true in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine.

Significantly, successful destabilizations have been massively funded by the United States, other Western governments, corporate foundations and wealthy individuals (among them Ackerman and George Soros.) The use of NVR techniques to “challenge” US client states, as Martin puts it, happens infrequently, and receives none of the backing, funding, material, logistical, and information warfare support that successful destabilizations against US target governments receive. Martin mentions hundreds of nonviolent struggles going on around the world with which the ICNC and AEI have no connection. These are little known, and can boast modest accomplishments, at best, precisely because they’re grassroots supported, and aren’t backed by massive infusions of aid from imperialist foundations and governments. Without money and material and information warfare support, NVR is at a severe disadvantage and has little chance of achieving its goal of taking political power, absent a severe destabilizing crisis, whether war or economic collapse. Indeed, successful NVR campaigns have often been helped along by actual or threatened military intervention and economic hardship created by sanctions or blockade.

Arguing, as Martin does, that Western government- and foundation-supported NVR campaigns operate independently of US foreign policy goals because the ICNC and AEI have introduced nonviolent strategy to movements challenging US client governments, is tantamount to claiming the New York Times is not dominated by a US ruling class perspective because it has a few token left-liberal columnists. (Martin’s points would be more compelling if he backed them up with evidence, rather than simply making unsubstantiated statements, a common practice among supporters of Ackerman, Sharp, and Helvey. For example, he ought to let us know what US client governments the ICNC and AEI are helping foreign dissidents overthrow, citing relevant documents.)

There is, I think, a misconception that Martin labors under. He seems to believe that I have attacked NVR as a technique and have set my sights on discrediting War Resisters’ International, anti-nuclear direct action, ploughsares activists and any other group that uses nonviolent warfare to achieve its goals. That’s not the case. At the end of my article I point to the possibility that NVR “may stimulate Western leftists to think about how they too might use the destabilizers’ techniques to take power in their own country to win the authentic battle for democracy.” This goal is on the same level as Ackerman’s (taking political power) rather than the level on which I suspect Martin operates (pressuring elites, with no intention of replacing them.) In any event, I take issue not with nonviolent warfare, but with the ends to which the most successful and large scale applications of NVR have been put. NVR can be used for good, or bad. It is no more an end in itself than military warfare is. To believe that all NVR campaigns are good (or bad) simply because they’re based on nonviolent warfare is unsupportable. I fear that Martin, like the principals of Peace Magazine, has failed to distinguish means from ends, or has set nonviolence itself as an end, irrespective of what nonviolent warfare is used to achieve.

It’s not clear whether Martin is sincerely confused or whether he is dishonestly trying to portray Ackerman, Helvey and Sharp as champions of a progressive cause. It could be that he believes that resolving conflicts nonviolently is a goal to be aspired to, and doesn’t particularly care about who wins in conflicts, so long as the winners prevail through nonviolent methods. If so, then nonviolence as a value has been elevated above freedom from oppression and freedom from exploitation. Indeed, anyone who seeks to intensify oppression and exploitation, so long as he does so nonviolently, would be all right in Martin’s book and worthy of being defended. Would Martin applaud the Nazi’s pursuit of Lebensraum, had it been pursued through nonviolent warfare?

Finally, Martin claims not to know how anyone familiar with nonviolent action could say that NVR is not used by grassroots organizations in the West to force their own governments to change reactionary policies. This is born of confusion about how Ackerman defines NVR. According to Ackerman, NVR is “the shrewd use of strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience” in addition to mass protests and even nonviolent sabotage, to disrupt the functioning of government and make “a country ungovernable.” If there is a campaign in the United States or elsewhere in the Western world, where activists are using strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, and nonviolent sabotage to make their country ungovernable, then I’m surely not aware of it. (I am, on the other hand, aware of several such campaigns operating outside the West in countries whose governments Washington openly seeks to overthrow.) One would hope that in the United States, home of the principal proponents of NVR, that strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, and nonviolent sabotage were being used to make the US ungovernable, in order to replace a state systemically committed to war, imperialism and exploitation, but sadly that isn’t happening. Instead, the only contribution to peace NVR promoters are willing to make is to agitate for the use of nonviolent warfare to overthrow US regime change targets, so that the Pentagon doesn’t have to be called upon to do so. This is a deeply conservative agenda. Clearly, if Martin believes NVR is being used to change the reactionary policies of Western governments, his understanding of NVR is very different from that of Ackerman.

3 thoughts on “Nonviolent warfare: Questioning ends, not means

  1. What is most telling about Brian Martin’s arguments above is how he studiously avoids the fundamental issue that Gowans addressed: the use of NVR to overthrow various governments around the world and implant pro-Western regimes as a result.

    That is, he does not address the politics of the Colored (Counter-)Revolutions the West is nobly fomenting around the globe.

    Indeed, one must ask: What has been the real world result of these “Colored Revolutions” from Yugoslavia to Georgia to Ukraine and beyond?

    Either Capitalist free market reforms and privatization measures (that a self-styled Leftist like Prof. Martin allegedly would oppose); US and Western military intervention; or outright balkanization and dismemberment of nations (as in Yugoslavia).

    Instead of addressing how NVR is used by the West to overthrow governments and install puppet regimes and policies detrimental to the majority of people in the targetted nations, Martin attempts to change the terms of debate to abstract philosophizing about NVR; ridiculous scare scenarios about nuclear power plants threatened with “terrorist” attack; or funniest of all, a Gene Sharp quotation.

    But such is the nature of the Western Imperialist Left.

    Sharp Reflection Warranted
    Nonviolence in the Service of Imperialism

    AEI and Venezuela
    Einstein Turns in His Grave

  2. Im sorry mr Martin,you have failed to convince me of your arguement.Your analogy to nuclear weapons is irrelavent to this debate.You say”NVR involves a different sense of power,commonly called people power wich involves empowerment of the population to challenge groups backed by force”.Please define”empowering of the population’?.Ask the Georgians or the workers of eastern Ukraine who has benefited from colored ”revolutions”.Are the populations of Serbia happy to see privatisation of thier economy?Where these NVR movements have been succsesful,conservative agendas have been quickly introduced,economic sabotage ceases and the financial backing and infastructure for opposition groups has been removed just as quick,thus making any further opposition impotent and disorganised[and often made illegal].This is about POWER mr Martin and that power is real political economic,its not about ticking bits of paper and sticking it into a box to elect one of 2 partys that fundamentally support the sanctity of property rights of the bourgeosie and hence have no significant difference as in Australia[thats why the framework of workchoices has been repackaged by the Rudd govt],it is about self determination and being free from political and economic subjegation,nowhere on this planet do the class of owners share POWER with the class of TOILERS not even in Australia.It cannot be otherwise as the system of production for profit would not be able to function.Who benefits from the NVR that is promoted by Ackerman Sharp and Helvey?As far as i can see it has not been”the population”that you talk of.”The”empowerment of the population”is only temparay in order to finish off goverments that have been sanctioned,threatened and undermined by the USA and thier client states. imperialism is determined to strangle,stiffle and crush anything that is not condusive to its profit making.Do a bit of digging and ask,Who,s interests are being served by colored ”revolutions”of the Helvey Sharp and Ackerman kind?

  3. Response to Stephen Gowans’ reply to my criticism of his article “Overthrow, Inc.”


    I thank Stephen Gowans for explaining his views in more detail. This has clarified, for me, two points where our views diverge.

    The first point concerns means and ends. Gowans says “NVR [nonviolent resistance] by itself is neither good nor bad. The critical question is: What is it used for?”

    I agree about the importance of what NVR is used for. But the choice to use NVR rather than violent methods is often even more important.

    As an illustration, consider an alternative to NVR: nuclear weapons. Some might say that nuclear weapons are neither good nor bad and that the critical question is what they are used for. I disagree. Nuclear weapons, as means to an end, are inherently bad because, among other reasons, they are indiscriminate and are ideal tools for justifying unaccountable state power.

    There is an extensive body of writing in technology studies about the non-neutrality of technology. Technologies can be said to embody politics. These embodied politics do not determine uses or impacts but they do influence them.

    For example, a nuclear power plant is a prime target for terrorist attack, whereas a city of roofs with equivalent energy from solar hot water heaters does not provide the same avenue for terrorist leverage.

    NVR is, likewise, a non-neutral tool. It is especially useful for those who want to challenge domination and not very useful for the purposes of domination itself.

    In many cases, it doesn’t matter what the motives of NVR promoters are – the impact lies in the tools they use. No doubt many who endorse nuclear weapons are ethically minded, but the weapons carry their own politics. Similarly, the impact of promoting NVR lies, to a very large extent, in the NVR tools themselves. With NVR, the means partially incorporate the ends. With nuclear weapons, the means are largely incompatible with any humane ends.

    The second point concerns the notion of power, a subject of long-standing debate. I think that Gowans is using the concept of power differently from me. Capturing state power, in the traditional sense of militarism or Marxism, means taking control of a system built on force, namely built on the armed might of the military and police. NVR involves a different sense of power, commonly called people power, which involves empowerment of the population to challenge groups backed by force.

    To be sure, NVR can contribute to a change in state power. But the long-term logic of NVR is to undermine power backed by violence. For decades, Gene Sharp has argued that the US government should replace its military forces by a civilian-based defence system, which in essence means empowering the people in methods of NVR. Could US imperialism continue without military forces, but only a civilian-based defence system? I doubt it. So I think we are using different conceptions of power.

    As for changing the policies of Western governments, it is useful to read Lawrence Wittner’s volumes The Struggle Against the Bomb, on western movements against nuclear weapons. They used NVR as well as conventional political methods and probably have saved the world from nuclear catastrophe.

    Brian Martin

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