by Jonathan Wallace

The first step in non-violence is that we cultivate in our daily life, as between ourselves, truthfulness, humility, tolerance, and loving kindness.--Gandhi

Gandhi said, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world." This statement is as electrifying on the nth repetition as it was the first time I heard it. In a world of talk, of weak advocacy, Gandhi said, talk is not enough. We can best express a belief by putting our bodies on the line, by making statements with our bodies, but by doing so in a manner that is honorable and peaceful. He defined for the world a beautiful, and sometimes quite effective, form of expression, known as nonviolence.

Because of its beauty and its relationship, in the minds of many Westerners, with the teachings of Jesus, or with Hinduism and other faiths, some tend to think of nonviolence not as a choice, a tactic shrewdly selected when the circumstances are exactly right for it, but as a moral imperative, a thing in itself, a higher state of being to which to aspire. However, nonviolence is better understood as one of a number of choices available to an oppressed minority, one that will only work under narrow conditions, and which (like other choices) has disadvantages associated with it as well as advantages.

In a 1995 essay, The Gandhi Game, I analyzed nonviolence as a unique variation on the game theory paradigm known as the Prisoner's Dilemma. While the P.D. sees human behavior narrowly in terms of two possible choices, betrayal or cooperation, I said that Gandhi had invented a third move which lay in betwen the other two: a form of withholding cooperation that was nevertheless not a betrayal. While terrorist groups specialize in secrecy, ruses and ambushes, all ultimate betrayals, Gandhi's system of nonviolence shared some of the aspects of cooperation. You always knew where to find him; he let you know what he stood for and what his intentions were; you could trust him not to do certain harmful things, and to keep his word when given. Across a series of nonviolent acts, Gandhi succeeded in establishing a basis for future trust with his adversaries, in a way a terrorist group never can through acts of violence. Dr. King too projected a physical and moral strength and constancy which communicated that he was an opponent with whom one could build a relationship of trust.

I also noted in the 1995 essay that nonviolence only can be effective if the adversary, no matter how wrong-headed, is himself honorable enough to refrain from crossing the line into mass murder:

It is a significant limitation of noncooperation that it can only succeed if one's adversary, no matter how harsh, unjust and imperialist, is also somewhat honorable and is reluctant to use or endorse violence. Gandhi was successful with the British who (with a few exceptions such as Amritsar) did not commit massacres; but he would have died on the first day of opposition against the amoral, treacherous and violent Nazis, who would have executed him and all his followers and thrown them in a pit. In other words, there must be something about the adversary that makes it clear that the grounds for cooperation already exist. If the adversary will not stop short of any act of cruelty or murder, noncooperation is not an option and the only available responses are violence or silence.

I was reminded of these words recently when reading an article in The New York Review of Books for March 8, 2001, entitled "What If?" by M.F. Perutz, about Churchill's decision to resist Hitler. Several members of his cabinet were sympathetic to Hitler or spineless concerning him; one of them was Lord Halifax, who had visited the dictator at Berchtesgaden in 1937. They had talked about Britain's problems in India, and Hitler advised him:

Shoot Gandhi, and if that does not suffice to reduce them to submission, shoot a dozen leading members of Congress; and if that does not suffice, shoot 200 and so on until order is established.

If Hitler had "owned" India, or if Gandhi had been born a citizen of a European country conquered by the Nazis, Gandhi (an intelligent man, really not an irrational zealot) would probably not have decided on nonviolence as a tactic; but if he had, he would have been murdered the first day.

In fact, in 1942, there was a brief attempt to resist Hitler nonviolently, by a small group of students who called themselves The White Rose. They covertly printed and distributed leaflets opposing Nazism, about as innocuous an act of resistance as could occur in a Western democracy, but which warranted the death penalty in Nazi Germany. Their first leaflet said:

Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be governed without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes - crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure - reach the light of day?......Therefore every individual, conscious of his responsibility as a member of Christian and Western civilization, must defend himself as best he can at this late hour, he must work against the scourges of mankind, against fascism and any similar system of totalitarianism. Offer passive resistance - resistance - wherever you may be, forestall the spread of this atheistic war machine before it is too late, before the last cities, like Cologne, have been reduced to rubble, and before the nation’s last young man has given his blood on some battlefield for the hubris of a sub-human. Do not forget that every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure!

The White Rose members, mainly university students, probably suffered from the ailment diagnosed by Joseph Conrad in Youth: a belief in their own immortality. In February 1943, three of the group threw leaflets into the crowded courtyard of the University of Munich and were turned in by a handyman who was a member of the party. Sophie Scholl: "It was either high spirits or stupidity that made me throw 80 to 100 leaflets from the third floor of the university into the inner courtyard." All three were dead--guillotined-- six days later.

Inescapably, the memory of the White Rose members is tinged by the sense that they (however right-thinking or well-meaning) were very foolish in the means of their resistance: that they accomplished nothing except their own deaths. When we think about Hitler, the only kind of resistance to him we can credit is that of a very different group of conspirators, those including Lt. Col. Claus von Stauffenberg who, on July 20, 1944, left a briefcase bomb in a conference room at a field headquarters in East Prussia where Hitler was meeting with aides. They didn't succeed either, but given everything we know about Nazi Germany, the means they selected was much better calculated to prevail than the leaflets of the White Rose.

Anyone who believes that nonviolence is a moral imperative, rather than an elegant and sometimes effective tool, must argue that it would have been effective against Hitler. David McReynolds of the War Resisters' League writes: "We will never know if nonviolence would have worked against Hitler.....But within Occupied Europe there were well documented victories for nonviolence."

The South an honorable opponent?

One objection to my suggestion that nonviolence requires honorable opponents is that in the American South, nonviolent action was answered with murder, beatings and bombings. This is true, but civil rights activism in the South was a three party game. The adversary to which Dr. King's nonviolence was directed was not Sheriff Bull Connor but President Johnson and Northern liberals. A majority in the North had a vaguely sympathetic attitude towards black efforts to obtain civil rights, heavily tempered by a belief that the status quo would fix itself over some period of time and that it was wrong for the activists to push things too quickly. Dr. King gambled that most people in the North would eventually come to find the beating and killing of his followers unbearable, just as Gandhi had made the same gamble about the conscience of the British. By contrast, a violent rebellion against the Southern states would have caused the federal government, supported by Northern public opinion, to aid them in suppressing it.

Dr. King's wonderful Letter From the Birmingham Jail begins by staking out the basic principle that (as we also learn from the Prisoner's Dilemma) that our fates are all in one another's hands:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

The letter is directed to moderates who have expressed discomfort with his campaign:

For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never".

Dr. King understands that the people he is trying to shock into sympathy-- the ones who, in effect, he will force to rescue him--have a "mythical concept of time", an idea that progress comes of its own accord as we move into the future, rather than through human action in the present:

Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.

Dr. King was a shrewd strategist. He had refrained from demonstrations until after the Birmingham election, in which a moderate, Albert Boutwell, defeated the more violent Bull Connor. Action prior to the election might have swung votes the wrong way. The Birmingham clergy who called Dr. King's actions "unwise and untimely" (provoking his letter) asked why he did not wait to give the new mayor time to act. He replied:

[T]he new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millenium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure.

Dr. King points out one other significant virtue of nonviolence: it provides an outlet for human energy that otherwise would discharge itself in violence:

The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides--and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history.

With this statement the full applicability of the Prisoner's Dilemma paradigm becomes evident. There must be an incentive to cooperate, a penalty for betrayal. People who engage in nonviolence and see resulting progress will continue to act nonviolently. People who do not secure cooperation will resort to violence. Nonviolence is a form of noncooperation that seats us much closer to cooperation than its alternative.


One objection to nonviolence is that it will be perceived by the adversary as proof of physical weakness, of an inability to respond with force. Gandhi worried about this issue a lot. He concluded that nations and individuals must pass from cowardice through a phase of (violent) strength in order to come to nonviolence. Those who are not ready for nonviolence might honorably engage in violence in defense of themseves and their families. "Self-defence is the only honourable course where there is unreadiness for self-immolation." "Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence."

What am I to advise a man to do who wants to kill but is unable owing to his being maimed? Before I can make him feel the virtue of not killing, I must restore to him the arm he has lost...A nation that is unfit to fight cannot from experience prove the virtue of not fighting. I do not infer from this that India must fight. But I do say that India must know how to fight.


As a coward, which I was for years, I harboured violence. I began to prize non-violence only when I began to shed cowardice.

Dr. King, citing Gandhi in support, said of violent self defense that "all societies, from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilized, accept [it] as moral and legal."

Violence as a tool

For the "moral imperative" crowd, the statement that nonviolence is just one tool in the workbox is dangerous, because violence is also then an option. Both Gandhi and King admitted this was true. They believed that nonviolence was the better way, not that it was the only way. Dr. King said:

I am not here to say that violence has never worked. One who studies history soon discovers that nations have often received their independence through violence. Violence has often brought about momentary victories, it can never bring about permanent peace and it ends up creating many more social problems. Violence in the long run in the struggle for racial justice in both impractical and immoral. It is impractical for many reasons, and I think one of the best reasons is that so many of our opponents would love us to start a violent revolution; they would use this an excuse to kill many innocent people under the pretense that they are inciting a riot.

Gandhi, a specialist in the simple statement operating like an adrenaline shot to the heart, said: "I hold that the world is sick of armed rebellions." Was he right? The tired, sick world has continued to proliferate armed rebellions at every moment.

Gandhi, to a greater degee than King, did not regard himself as bound to any need for consistency, nor is any statement of his to be regarded as a scientific observation. Instead, his "is" may be regarded as an "ought": "I hold that the world ought to be tired of armed rebellions." Such a statement, coming from a man so powerfuly persuasive as Gandhi, may push the world a step or two in the direction of being tired of armed rebellion, if it is not so already.

Those who view nonviolence as a moral imperative must argue that violence offends God's law or that it disturbs the harmony of the universe. As I have said ad nauseum, I regard morality as a scheme of competing human rulebooks, and moral debate restricts itself to questions of what rules are more effective or more beautiful than others. In any other type of moral discussion, we are engaging in circular arguments, claiming to prove a proposition the truth of which we have already assumed. (Albert Ayer: "The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, 'You acted wrongly in stealing that money,' I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, 'You stole that money.'")

Both Gandhi and Dr. King start from the proposition that nonviolence is the better rule. Both men were very religious, and each founds his doctrine intimately in religious thought, yet engages in lengthy discussions of the practicality, the utility of nonviolence, as King does in the above quote (violence is impractical because Sherriff Connor and his troops will use it as a excuse to respond with deadly force). Gandhi said, "It is my firm conviction that nothing enduring can be built on violence." Also, "Violence is bound sooner or later to exhaust itself but peace cannot issue out of such exhaustion."

A practical argument against violence may be constructed as follows. Violence in pursuit of liberty is a means to an end. Few people applying violence to obtain liberty want, or expect, to continue using violence once they have achieved their goals. While violence routinely attended transitions of power in the Roman Empire and in the British monarchy through Renaissance times, we regard it as a significant criterion of "civilization" today that important decisions and internal crises are handled without violence. In short, the use of violence to attain liberty raises two significant problems: 1. Knowing when it is appropriate to use violence; 2. Knowing when and how to stop. Nonviolence, by contrast, does not bring up these issues. First, it is always appropriate to use a nonviolent approach, so there is much less of a break with prior habits. A violent act represents much more of a dividing line between past and future. Second, the way one behaves during a nonviolent struggle provides a blueprint for behavior afterwards, while behavior during a violent struggle must be renounced later (not always easily accomplished).

Since history is written by the victors, our view of the appropriateness of a revolution largely depends on whether it succeeded. However, since unfortunately there is no "invisible hand" ensuring that only the good violent people win, the post facto glorification of successful revolutions completely obscures the question of when, if ever, violence is appropriate in the pursuit of liberty. This is too huge a question to be dealt with thoroughly in a few paragraphs here, but let's at least mention some of the problems.

Most people, including Mr. Gandhi and Dr. King, agree with the proposition that there are certain circumstances under which a human being can legitimately use violence in pursuit of certain goals. For example, in the 1960's, the philosophy of nonviolence did not translate into an obligation to allow yourself to be murdered by hooded figures on a dark road at night, and anything you could do to get yourself out of the situation alive would be both legal and moral, as Dr. King acknowledged. The difficulty lies in knowing where to draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate acts of violence.

Effectively what is lacking is an international law of revolution supported by a wide consensus. Such an international law would not be difficult to implement. For example, taking the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a starting point, a revolution code could define any country which violated some number of the UDHR's tenets as being exposed to a revolution. Procedural rules could require oppressed minorities to seek nonviolent redress (or establish why doing so was impossible or dangerous). Once these procedural rules were followed, if redress of wrongs did not result, the law would declare oppressed minorities free to resort to armed resistance, with the support and even with the intervention of other nations.

Lacking an international law of revolution, every faction within a country, and even every individual, is free to set the rules. Timothy McVeigh is a perfect example. He evaluated the federal raid at Waco to be a terrible abuse of police power (which it was), and unilaterally decided that the correct response to a government provocation was to retaliate by bombing a federal building on the anniversary of the Waco deaths. As a result, he took 168 lives, including 19 children (whom he described as "collateral damage" in a statement without remorse). I have frequently challenged the Second Amendment crowd, who believe that the right to bear arms is the "reset switch of the American constitution", to tell me what the rules are regarding the legitimacy of armed rebellion, and the only answer I get is similar to the one Justice Potter Stewart gave about pornography: I can't define it but I know it when I see it.

Without a rational rule, agreed to by a majority of humans, the decisions of individuals or groups to engage in violent acts of resistance run the risk of being premature, or overreactions, or in fact being terrible crimes because no violence whatever was warranted.

Even if the decision to engage in violence is legitimate, how and when to stop can present a grave dilemma. There are two contemporary examples: Palestine, where Al-Fatah and many other groups chose to reach accomodation with Israel and to create the Palestinian Authority, while Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, held themselves out and continued to kill; Ireland, where the I.R.A. decided to negotiate and a splinter group, the Real I.R.A., has chosen to continue bombing civilian areas.

The skills needed for terrorism--the most common modern incarnation of the small armed rebellion--are very different than those needed for government. Aldo Moro, the Italian prime minister, was kidnapped by men dressed as pilots; his six bodyguards, all of whom were killed, never thought they needed to be wary of men in airline uniforms. The I.R.A. installed a slow-acting bomb in a hotel room where they knew Margaret Thatcher would stay six months later. (When she escaped the blast, they sent a message: "We only need to be lucky one time. You need to be lucky every time.") A Palestinian man impregnated a young Irish woman who wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, then promised to meet her in Israel to marry her. He put her on a plane with a booby-trapped suitcase. The South African secret police blew the head off of an ANC lawyer in exile by sending him a bomb in a cassette player, labelled something like "Conclusive proof of secret murders by South African government" (and who says terrorists have no sense of humor?)

Each of these tactics, and many other actions, involved the application of murderous force through a security net intended to deflect it, by the use of ruse and surprise. However, once the battle is won, these skills become completely inapplicable to the problem of governing afterwards, unless the new government is a murderous dictatorship where the terrorists can simply assume new roles as the secret police. Most groups in armed revolt today at least pay lip service to the idea that they are seeking democracy, or, if they are fighting a democracy, to the idea that they want to recast it to give them, the presently voiceless, a more significant voice. Yet the skills in any government of the many--even an oligarchy, in fact any form of government other than one where the whole state is "owned" by one man--involve communication and consensus building, not secretiveness and ruse.

By contrast, the skills most useful in nonviolence translate extremely well to subsequent democratic government. Again, both Mr. Gandhi and Dr. King stand as examples: honest, open, good communicators, clear about their programs, able to build a consensus among their own followers, men of honor who could be relied upon even by their adversaries. While armed resistance creates a break in an existing government, and must go through an internal revolution in order to restore stability afterwards, nonviolence as a form of activism creates change without sudden breaks. It is a sort of braid from past to future.

Does violence refute nonviolence?

A major criticism of nonviolence is that all nonviolent leaders are eventually murdered by someone: Jesus was crucified, Mr. Gandhi and Dr. King were shot.

The question really posed here is whether the murder of these men constitutes conclusive evidence that nonviolence will inevitably fail as a tool.

Both men had substantial success in achieving the goals they set for themselves. Gandhi saw the independence of India from British rule in his lifetime. Dr. King's efforts were rewarded by passage of the 1964 civil rights legislation including most notably the Voter's Rights Act and the end of de jure segregation. Both men also, because they set extremely high standards, would have been disappointed, Gandhi by the failure of his legacy of nonviolence to gain a susbtantial foothold in his own country, Dr. King by the continuing persistence of social racism in the U.S. and the Republican-led trend towards rolling back legislative and judicial remedies for official racism.

However, there is no reason to regard the murder of either man as being any kind of an effective critique of their tactics. I doubt either of them would have. Both had been attacked and injured before; each knew the risks he ran. Dr. King was ordained a Baptist minister just a few weeks after Gandhi's assassination in 1948. Gandhi's fate did not deter Dr. King from pursuing a life of nonviolence. "[I]f physical death is the price that a man must pay to free his children and his white brethren from a permanent death of the spirit," Dr. King wrote, "then nothing could be more redemptive."

Humility, tolerance and optimism

There are two basic views of the world, which inform all our politics and our daily pragmatic decisions. In the optimistic world-view, people are essentially good, evil is a diversion or an episode, and progress is possible. In the pessimistic, people are essentially evil, compassion is weak and foolish and usually answerable by robbery or death, and an egotistical staking out of a well-defended protective zone around "me and mine" is a legitimate and in fact the sole solution.

Most people holding either view recognize the power of the human will. We are all aware that many new things have come into being because persuasive and unfrightened people wanted them. Even those holding the pessimistic view recognize that, in a Hobbesian world, those with the greatest will to survive are likely to succeed.

Since the two world-views share a belief in the importance of human will, the disagreement is only about means. The negative world-view believes that human will is exercised only through violence, so that even good people must be violent in response. From a practical standpoint, people with this view must always live their lives geared to the certain eruption of the lowest common denominator, bad men with guns. To counter them, we must ourselves be men with guns. Since self-defense, pre-emptive strikes and unwarranted aggressive violence all lie on a spectrum, unseparated by any bright lines, sooner or later it becomes difficult or impossible to distinguish the good men with guns from the bad ones.

Nonviolence makes it much easier to tell the sides apart, and provides for the possibility of human evolution. In the optimistic world-view, the exercise of human will via nonviolence leads to a (mostly) peaceful world. In the pessimistic world-view, the result is the eventual complete elimination of the nonviolent. Today, given the relatively recent birth of nonviolence as a completely articulated philosophy, choosing sides is based largely on faith rather than a sufficient breadth of historical experience. However, it is important to remember the role of will here. Unlike scientific experiments dependent on the absence or presence of phenomena unaffected by human will, human experiments will usually fail if the experimenter or the subjects are inclined to fail. Since even the pessimistic believe in the power of will, they might well give will organized as nonviolence a chance. Otherwise we are locked in a cycle of despair, not because physics so dictates but because we have chosen to be.

Tools are adopted and used against the background of an idea: when we choose a tool it is with the unspoken belief that the job we are doing is both possible and good. Tools are therefore always used with a philosophy of optimism. The use of nonviolence also implies, as Gandhi recognized, humility and tolerance: "The first step in non-violence is that we cultivate in our daily life, as between ourselves, truthfulness, humility, tolerance, and loving kindness." Humility, tolerance and optimism in combination are an extraordinarily powerful brew, are in fact a solvent which can dissolve and replace ancient structures of great tenacity. The nonviolence of the students in Tienamen Square was answered with murder, but their legacy is not dead and today there is renewed debate within and outside China about the meaning of the events of 1989. The Chinese government is, in fact, still defending itself against the people it killed in Tienamen.

Sometimes, as Thoreau pointed out, ideas are like seventeen-year cicadas working in the wood; they take time. While a few violent men can sometimes overthrow a government--always producing a legacy of continued instability and violence, as in the Soviet Union--is there any doubt that if enough people stand up nonviolently, any government must change or fall? While all tools have limits, the effective limits of nonviolence as a tool are as yet unknown. Oppressive governments exist based on Hitler's assumption that once you shoot a few, the rest will cooperate. This assumption, though supported in the past by the law of averages, does not rise to the certainty of a physical law. There are, relatively, a very few people today governing one billion Chinese, who at any point could, without killing them, politely tell them to depart. We get, and endure, only those governments we tolerate. Dr. King said: "All history teaches us that like a turbulent ocean beating great cliffs into fragments of rock, the turbulent movement of people incessantly demanding their rights always disintegrates the old order."

My source for most of the Gandhi quotes is an extensive archive of his work at The works of Dr. King have all but disappeared from the web, due to the family's exploitation of the civil rights leader as a commercial brand.