welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


The Success & Failure of Non-Violence

Yoav Tenembaum asks when a policy of non-violence is feasible.

Non-violence as a policy is based on the moral postulate that the use of force is inherently abhorrent, and further, seeks to link non-violence to concrete political objectives. The question raised in this article refers, first and foremost, to the viability of a policy of non-violence, rather than to its absolute moral merits; but to be sure, the three most prominent examples of advocacy of a policy of non-violence in modern history were moved by moral convictions. The three are Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and the pacifist movements of the twentieth century. Martin Luther King’s policy represents the best-known example of a non-violent policy in a situation where a segment of the population within a sovereign state is deeply opposed to that state’s official policy or to internally-upheld social conditions. He and his followers believed that the blatant injustice against the black population in the Southern states of the United States of America needed to be challenged by a series of non-violent steps. By contrast, Mahatma Gandhi’s advocacy of non-violence applied in a scenario of colonialism, that is, in the context of foreign occupation. Gandhi and his followers sought to oppose British rule in India. By further contrast, the pacifist movements of the twentieth century took place in the contest of inter-state relations. They were against the use of violence in inter-state relations, arguing that war is a morally untenable option in international relations.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi succeeded, where the pacifist movements did not. The question is, why?

First, King, Gandhi and their followers had clearly-defined and limited objectives. The pacifists, on the other hand, challenged a much wider, more powerful set of interests and tried to attain an Olympian objective of absolute, global peace.

One crucial factor in the success of King and Gandhi’s campaigns was the nature of the political systems of the United States and Britain: both were democracies. A non-violent policy has a better chance of succeeding when operating against democratic rather than dictatorial states. Indeed, the chances of either of those two attaining the same results if they had been faced by a regime such as Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union would have been considerably lower, to say the least. There were non-violent opponents of the Soviet regime in the post-Stalinist era who managed to survive the system; but they did not overcome it. Certainly, the dissidents who adopted non-violent means in their struggle against the Communist regime were indirectly instrumental in effecting changes there, by mobilizing world public opinion and being the focus of attention for human rights groups outside of the country. These effects, though, were not structural in nature, but rather tactical: they did not change the structure of Soviet society itself. Indeed, the most formidable contribution made by these dissidents was in enlightening public opinion outside of the Soviet Union about the true conditions prevailing in it. Evidently then, non-violent struggle may work towards enhancing the awareness of world opinion, particularly in democratic countries, and thus help the cause concerned. A clear contemporary example of this is the campaign by the Dalai Lama concerning Tibet. His non-violent campaigning has had scant effect in China itself – its main impact has been abroad. In galvanising international public opinion, the Dalai Lama has become a symbol for Tibetan liberation, and thanks to this his cause remains alive.

Non-violent protests were ostensibly successful in producing regime change in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, one should be careful not to confuse the manifestations of a change already taking effect, and the causes of such a change, or the forces which allow such a change to take place. That is to say, the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed because of Michael Gorbachev’s decision not to maintain them by force. Once the menace of Soviet intervention disappeared from the political balance sheet in Eastern Europe, the local Communist regimes had no chance of surviving. Thus, non-violence did succeed here, but it was most significantly Soviet non-violence, which created the conditions allowing Communism to fall peacefully in Eastern Europe. To be sure, the Soviet Union did not welcome the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe; it simply did not act to prevent it. Thus, one principle is, non-violent campaigns have a chance of succeeding if faced by a weak opponent which relies for its continued hold on power upon an external factor no longer willing to sustain it.

The power of the non-violent campaign undertaken by Martin Luther King, Jr. was strengthened by his positive message which lacked any shred of vengeance. The philosophy of non-violence espoused by Mahatma Gandhi itself found resonance among the British public, who were averse to political repression by violent means. The British had always been proud of the fact that political reforms in the modern era in Britain were brought about mostly by gradual, non-violent means – in contrast to Continental Europe, in which political changes were produced on various occasions by violent revolutions or civil wars. And to be sure, Britain was overstretched following World War II, with hardly sufficient resources to prop up its vast empire and meet its large international commitments. Withdrawing from India was as much a decision based on British economic and political calculations as the result of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent struggle.

Non-violence is futile if faced by a force determined to kill the person adopting it. Thus, an active policy of non-violence by Jews during the Holocaust would have been pointless. A Jewish Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King would have ended up in the gas chambers, as many non-violent Jews did. Similarly, non-violence in inter-state relations is futile if confronted by a power intent on destroying the other side. A policy of non-violence in inter-state relations is viable only if there are enough people on both sides to create sufficient pressure to prevent the eruption of violence from either side. Non-violence as a feasible policy, endowed with a strong moral base, has to relate its assumptions to the results it may achieve.

© Dr Yoav J. Tenembaum 2011

Yoav Tenembaum lectures at the Diplomacy Programme in the Social Science department at Tel Aviv University.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X