Nonviolent Action: Why and How it Works


Nonviolent action is extremely powerful.

Unfortunately, however, activists do not always understand why
nonviolence is so powerful and they design ‘direct actions’ that are
virtually powerless.

I would like to start by posing two questions. Why is nonviolent action
so powerful? And why is using it strategically so transformative?

When an activist group is working on an issue – such as a national
liberation struggle, war, the climate catastrophe, violence against
women and/or children, nuclear weapons, drone killings, rainforest
destruction, encroachments on indigenous land – they will often plan an
action that is intended to physically halt an activity, such as the
activities of a military base, the loading of a coal ship, the work of a
bulldozer, the building of an oil pipeline. Their plan might also
include using one or more of a variety of techniques such as locking
themselves to a piece of equipment (‘locking-on’) to prevent it from
being used. Separately or in addition, they might use secrecy both in
their planning and execution so that they are able to carry out the
action before police or military personnel prevent them from doing so.

Unfortunately, the focus on physical outcomes (including actions such as
‘locking-on’ and its many equivalents), and the secrecy necessary to
carry out their plan, all functionally undermine the power of their
action. Why is this? Let me explain how and why nonviolent action works
so that it is clear why any nonviolent activist who understands the
dynamics of nonviolent action is unconcerned about the immediate
physical outcome of their action (and what is necessary to achieve

If you think of your nonviolent action as a physical act, then you will
tend to focus your attention on securing a physical outcome from your
planned action: to prevent the military from occupying a location, to
stop a bulldozer from knocking down trees, to halt the work at an oil
terminal or nuclear power station, to prevent construction equipment
being moved on site. Of course, it is simple enough to plan a nonviolent
action that will do any of these things for a period of time and there
are many possible actions that might achieve it.

But if you pause to consider how your nonviolent action might have
psychological and political impact that leads to lasting or even
permanent change on the issue in question but also society as a whole,
then your conception of what you might do will be both expanded and
deepened. And you will be starting to think strategically about what it
means to mobilise large numbers of people to think and behave

After all, whatever the immediate focus of your action, it is only ever
one step in the direction of more profound change. And this profound
change must include a lasting change in prevailing ideas and a lasting
change in ‘normal’ behaviour by substantial (and perhaps even vast)
numbers of people. Or you will be back tomorrow, the day after and so on
until you get tired of doing something without result, as routinely
happens in campaigns that ‘go nowhere’ (as so many do).

So why does nonviolent action work?

Fundamentally, nonviolent action works because of its capacity to create
a favourable political atmosphere (because of, for example, the way in
which activist honesty builds trust), its capacity to create a
non-threatening physical environment (because of the nonviolent
discipline of the activists), and its capacity to alter the human
psychological conditions (both innate and learned) that make people
resist new ideas in the first place. This includes its capacity to
reduce or eliminate fear and its capacity to ‘humanise’ activists in the
eyes of more conservative sections of the community. In essence,
nonviolent activists precipitate change because people are inspired by
the honesty, discipline, integrity, courage and determination of the
activists – despite arrests, beatings or imprisonment – and are thus
inclined to identify with them. Moreover, as an extension of this, they
are inclined to change their behaviour to act in solidarity.

It is for this reason too that a nonviolent action should always make
explicit what behavioural change it is asking of people. Whether
communicated in news conferences or via the various media, painted on
banners or in other ways, a nonviolent action group should clearly
communicate powerful actions that individuals can take. For example, a
climate action group should consistently convey the messages to ‘Save
the Climate: Become a Vegan/Vegetarian’, ‘Save the Climate: Boycott
Cars’ and, like a rainforest action group, ‘Don’t Buy Rainforest
Timber’. A peace group should consistently convey such messages as
‘Don’t Pay Taxes for War’ and ‘Divest from the Weapons Industry’ (among
many other possibilities). Groups resisting the nuclear fuel cycle and
fossil fuel industry in their many manifestations should consistently
convey brief messages that encourage reduced consumption and a shift to
more self-reliant renewable energies. See, for example, ‘The Flame Tree
Project to Save Life on Earth’. Groups struggling to defend or reinstate indigenous sovereignty should convey compelling messages that explain what people can do in their particular context.

It is important that these messages require powerful personal action,
not token responses. And it is important that these actions should not
be directed at elites or lobbying elites. Elites will fall into line
when we have mobilized enough people so that they are compelled to do as
we wish. And not before. At the end of the Salt March in 1930 Gandhi
picked up a handful of salt on the beach at Dandi. This was the signal
for Indians everywhere to start collecting their own salt in violation
of British law. In subsequent campaigns Gandhi called for Indians to
boycott British cloth and make their own khadi (handwoven cloth). These
actions were strategically focused because they undermined the
profitability of British colonialism in India and nurtured Indian

A key reason why Mohandas K. Gandhi was that rarest of combinations – a
master nonviolent strategist and a master nonviolent tactician – was
because he understood the psychology of nonviolence and how to make it
have political impact. Let me illustrate this point by using the
nonviolent raid on the Dharasana salt works, the nonviolent action he
planned as a sequel to the more famous Salt March in 1930.

On 4 May 1930 Gandhi wrote to Lord Irwin, Viceroy of India, advising his
intention to lead a party of nonviolent activists to raid the Dharasana
Salt Works to collect salt and thus intervene against the law
prohibiting Indians from collecting their own salt. Gandhi was
immediately arrested, as were many other prominent nationalist leaders
such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel.

Nevertheless, having planned for this contingency, under a succession of
leaders (who were also progressively arrested) the raid went ahead as
planned with hundreds of Indian satyagrahis (nonviolent activists)
attempting to nonviolently invade the salt works. However, despite
repeated attempts by these activists to walk into the salt works during
a three week period, not one activist got a pinch of salt! Moreover,
hundreds of satyagrahis were injured, many receiving fractured skulls or
shoulders, and two were killed.

But an account of the activists’ nonviolent discipline, commitment and
courage – under the steel-tipped lathi (baton) blows of the police – was
reported in 1,350 newspapers around the world. As a result, this
nonviolent action – which ‘failed’ to achieve the stated physical
objective of seizing salt – functionally undermined support for British
imperialism in India. For an account of the salt raids at Dharasana, see
Thomas Weber. ‘”The Marchers Simply Walked Forward Until Struck Down”:
Nonviolent Suffering and Conversion’

If the activists had been preoccupied with the physical seizure of salt
and, perhaps, resorted to the use of secrecy to get it, there would have
been no chance to demonstrate their honesty, integrity, courage and
determination – and to thus inspire empathy for their cause – although
they might have got some salt! (Of course, if salt had been removed
secretly, the British government could, if they had chosen, ignored it:
after all, who would have known or cared? However, they could not afford
to let the satyagrahis take salt openly because salt removal was illegal
and failure to react would have shown the salt law – a law that
represented the antithesis of Indian independence – to be ineffective.)

In summary, nonviolent activists who think strategically understand that
strategic effectiveness is unrelated to whether or not the action is
physically successful (provided it is strategically selected,
well-designed so that it elicits one or other of the intended responses,
and sincerely attempted). Psychological, and hence political, impact is
gained by demonstrating qualities that inspire others and move them to
act personally too. For this reason, among several others, secrecy (and
the fear that drives it) is counterproductive if strategic impact is
your intention.

If you are interested in planning effective nonviolent actions, a
related article also explains the vital distinction between ‘The
Political Objective and Strategic Goal of Nonviolent Actions’.

And if you are concerned about violent military or police responses,
have a look at ‘Nonviolent Action: Minimizing the Risk of Violent

For those of you who are interested in planning and acting strategically
in your nonviolent struggle, whatever its focus, you might be interested
in one or the other of these two websites: Nonviolent Campaign Strategy and Nonviolent Defense/Liberation Strategy.

And if you are interested in being part of the worldwide movement to end
all violence, you are welcome to sign the online pledge of ‘The People’s
Charter to Create a Nonviolent World’.

Struggles for peace, justice, sustainability and liberation often fail.
Almost invariably, this is due to the failure to understand the
psychology, politics and strategy of nonviolence. It is not complicated
but it requires a little time to learn.


Biodata: Robert J. Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?‘ His email address is flametree@riseup.netand his website is at

Robert J. Burrowes
P.O. Box 68
Victoria 3460

Nonviolence Charter
Flame Tree Project to Save Life on Earth
‘Why Violence?’
Nonviolent Campaign Strategy
Nonviolent Defense/Liberation Strategy
Anita: Songs of Nonviolence
Robert Burrowes
Global Nonviolence Network

This entry was posted in Activism, civil disobedience, consciousness, culture, Environment, History, Philosophy, society and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Nonviolent Action: Why and How it Works

  1. Great information / analysis. Gandhi indeed is a parade example of how to do it…. still recommend everybody to watch the Gandhi movie again and again:-)

  2. DREW5000G says:

    gene sharp, non violent revolution,

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