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Toward a Science of Nonviolent Action

George Lakey
On Science (November 2022)
Healing the World

[The original version of this article, with footnotes and more detail, is published online at: westernfriend.org/media/toward-science-nonviolent-action-unabridged]

I was a 1950s undergraduate just discovering Friends worship, so I dug into the history of the Quaker movement. There I found extraordinary achievements in conflict situations, including early Quakers waging “the Lamb’s war” to change laws and practices in Britain, and others crossing the Atlantic Ocean to upset the theocracy of Puritan Massachusetts. I learned that Friends were deeply moved by Spirit to take on opponents much bigger than they were. They apparently found ways to achieve the impossible, ways that might be useful to others who aren’t particularly religious. I wondered if there were a scientific way to describe it.

A professor at the University of Oslo, where I was studying sociology, suggested that I look up another American who was researching there. Gene Sharp, barely thirty, held me spellbound as he described his effort to put the concept of nonviolent struggle onto a sound empirical footing. He related case after case, from multiple countries, in which non-pacifists had engaged in nonviolent struggle, often with success.

In Norway during World War II, for example, he told me that teachers decided to resist a Nazi takeover of their schools. Despite arrests and torture, the teachers held out. Parents and the larger society supported them, and the Nazis backed down.

Sharp told me he planned to write a doctoral dissertation at Oxford that would gather such examples from around the world. He would classify them and draw tentative generalizations. Nonviolent tactics show up continually, all over the world, because of their sheer practicality; they are often intuited by non-pacifist innovators. According to Sharp, our job as social scientists is to help everyone “catch up with what works.”

My own next step was to enter a graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania, where I produced a master’s thesis that identified three mechanisms of successful nonviolent struggles: persuasion, conversion, and coercion. This thesis focused on cases in which the nonviolent campaigners were seeking – or forcing – change, such as those Quakers in Puritan Massachusetts, or the militant wing of the woman’s suffrage movement.

Even though I remained fascinated by the dynamics of proactive change-making, I began to wonder what happens when people use nonviolent action defensively. Then in 1964, Gene Sharp organized a conference at Oxford University on something he called “civilian-based defense.” There I met Wolfgang Sternstein, who was producing a Ph.D. dissertation on the nonviolent defense of the Ruhr Valley in 1923-25. Germany had fallen behind in the reparations payments it owed France and Belgium after World War I, and the victors sent troops into the Ruhr to force shipments of more steel and coal. Germany resisted nonviolently by declaring the Ruhr Valley on strike, saying to the invaders, “Pick the coal with your bayonets.” After an intense struggle, the invaders conceded – one of many successful cases of nonviolent defense.

The Oxford conference stimulated increasing interest in nonviolent research, including research by several European defense ministries and the adoption of civilian-based defense by Lithuania. The American Friends Service Committee invited me to join a group that was sketching out a civilian-based defense of the U.S., eventually published as In Place of War (1967).

In the 1980s, another distinct application of nonviolent action became evident. Alongside nonviolent change and nonviolent defense, we began to distinguish “third-party nonviolent intervention.” The first two applications are partisan: whether a campaign is struggling nonviolently for change or against change, the action aims to achieve substantive goals. The primary activity of third-party nonviolent intervention is accompaniment, essentially “nonviolent bodyguarding.”

At that time, Quakers and others were responding to calls from people living under Central American dictatorships to protect the lives of human rights advocates threatened with assassination. An outgrowth of this movement of nonviolent bodyguarding was Peace Brigades International, which in 1989 asked me to join a new, international team in Sri Lanka to help keep human rights activists alive. On the plane to Sri Lanka, I realized that the power of the “nonviolent bodyguard” is based largely on the fact of being a third party, someone not directly involved in the dispute. In the following years, I studied other examples in the growing field of Third-Party Nonviolent Intervention.

Other organizations came forward to use systematically the technique we used in Sri Lanka, calling it “protective accompaniment.” In country after country, in the midst of bloodshed, protective accompaniment saved the lives of threatened people.

However, whether protective accompaniment is the best technique to use in a situation depends on the nature of the violent threat. With research, I found other effective techniques.  During tense elections, monitoring and observing are useful. In some situations, interposition (putting a body or bodies in between the conflicting parties) can inhibit violence. And sometimes, just appearing in an obvious way in a field of conflict, something I call “presence,” can be enough to lower the temperature of the conflict.

As is characteristic of a newly emerging field, specific training was not available for my task in Sri Lanka in the 1980s. By the 1990s, however, trainings had been developed for Third-Party Nonviolent Intervention (TPNI). In 2002, the United States Institute of Peace made a research grant to Training for Change, an organization I co-founded, to put TPNI training on a solid basis of “best practices.” To do that, we consulted with many organizations that put their people at risk, such as Doctors Without Borders and the Swedish Army’s peacekeeping forces.

In 2009, while teaching peace studies at Swarthmore College, I was as startled as anyone when the Pentagon called me, requesting a meeting in Washington. This was after 9/11, and I was teaching a new course addressing that challenge. A counter-terrorism policy planning unit in the Department of Defense wanted to learn how I was applying systematic thought toward strategizing against terrorist threat.

I have met few Americans, even in the peace movement, working to create a nonviolent strategy for defending our country. But I knew that Swarthmore students were often keen to do ground-breaking work. I warned them this new course would be tough: each student would choose a country currently challenged by terrorist threat, get to know that country’s strengths and points of vulnerability, pretend to be a consultant to that country, and devise a nonmilitary strategy for the country’s defense.

As the students dug into their work, I shared with them a toolbox of eight nonmilitary techniques that have actually been used as part of some country’s national defense. We talked about how to adapt these tools for today, including possible synergies that might emerge from various combinations. (I haven’t found any country so far that has tried to combine more than three of these tools before choosing instead to rely on the military.)  I have published a description of these eight nonmilitary tools for countering terrorism in my online article, “8 ways to defend against terror nonviolently,” Waging Nonviolence, January 8, 2015.

When I met with the Pentagon research team, I quickly acknowledged I wasn’t an expert in counter-terrorism – as they were – and I asked for critical feedback on the eight nonmilitary techniques we were using in my course. I waited for their objections, but no one volunteered. I encouraged their chief to lead by example, and he, smiling, said he knew by the body language of his group that what I’d presented made sense to them.

He went on to say that he could imagine devising a powerful counter-terrorism strategy for the United States that would create synergies among the tools in our nonmilitary toolbox. I immediately suggested that his team go ahead and use the tools to create a strategy for the U.S. He smiled, and explained there was no way that the government would take up such a radically innovative alternative to the “war on terror,” no matter how sound the alternative was. His response reminded me of that five-star general, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who long ago as President warned against the power of what he named the “military-industrial complex.”

Nonetheless, another piece of work at Swarthmore is proving useful to many: our Global Nonviolent Action Database. As soon as we placed this database online, people all around the world started consulting it. So far, the database includes over 1400 cases of nonviolent struggle from nearly 200 countries, with case narratives for each, going all the way back to the ancient Pharaohs. The 1400 cases represent only a small fraction of the universe of cases of collective use of nonviolent action. (nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu)

I remember a student saying upon entering my classroom for the first time, “Professor, I’m very interested in this research seminar even though I’m from Romania and my people don’t engage in nonviolent action.” I smiled my welcome and said, “Well, we’ll see about what your people have been up to.” After a few tips on how to look, the student discovered and wrote up a series of cases from her country, which she entered into the database. Nonviolent action, it turns out, is everywhere; the cases are hiding in plain sight, obscured by the overpowering belief in violence. (In that way, violence is like racism – a pervasive belief hidden in the unconscious and rarely observed by its owner.)

Supplementing Swarthmore’s informational database, political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan created a database of 323 nation-size popular struggles between 1900 and 2006. These were all the major conflicts waged during these years, either violently or by “civil resistance,” the researchers’ term for nonviolent struggle. Using that array of 323 cases enabled the researchers to generate multiple hypotheses and test them. One of their best-known findings is that movements that relied on nonviolent struggle were twice as likely to win as movements that used violence to pursue their goals. (Why Civil Resistance Works, 2011).

For people still wedded to the violence paradigm inherited from mainstream culture, the stories unearthed by nonviolence research continue to surprise. Any Quakers who have lost confidence in their pacifism have at least 1400 reasons to take another look!  ~~~

George Lakey, 85, is a member of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and has taught at Haverford, Swarthmore, and the University of Pennsylvania. He has led over 1500 training workshops on five continents. His eleventh book is his memoir, Dancing with History: A Life for Peace and Justice (2022).

A documentary film about Lakey’s life is forthcoming, Rebel with a Mission, by Glenn Films. Jon Watts has also produced several short videos about Lakey (www.jonwatts.com/tag/george-lakey/).

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