A Comparison Of Practical And Principled Nonviolent Action Theories

3804 words - 15 pages

A Comparison of Practical and Principled Nonviolent Action Theories


The phrase "nonviolent action" brings to mind a wide variety of sometimes conflicting images. The image of a Chinese student at Tiananmen Square standing in the way of a tank was portrayed around the world, along with the stories of those who were shot and run over by those tanks. Indian participants pressed forward undauntedly in columns and then in groups to the salt depot at Dharasana while being beaten back with clubs by police forces who were infuriated by the nonresistance of the people. Individual Danes sneaked onto the Nazi occupied airfields at night to sabotage their own planes to prevent them from being used against the Allies and the Danish people. Polish workers during the Solidarity movement refused to vote even though it was illegal and succeeded in preventing the election of unwanted single ticket politicians. Though widely varied, these images all accurately represent nonviolent social change movements of the last century.

Two theories have dominated the recorded history of the nonviolent social change movement as motivation for keeping the movements nonviolent: pragmatism and principle. A pragmatic approach has led to what is called practical nonviolent action--action based either on the lack of violent options or on the direct efficiency of nonviolence. Action based on a theory of moral, ethical, or religious principles is known as principled nonviolent action. Both theories have motivated successful campaigns and both have spawned actions in which the goals of the movement were not accomplished. A number of authors in recent years have carefully examined and articulated both theories along with the case studies of movements that were based on them.

Most movements are also not entirely principled or practical, although groups within the movement may adhere strictly to one theory or the other. Sometimes the leadership is split between the two theories as in the civil rights movement in the USA and the student movement at Tiananmen Square (Schell 249). The resultant tension may split the group weakening the movement so leaders and organizers learn to overlook their personal beliefs, or those of the smaller group that they represent, for the sake of the larger movement. Because the two theories allow differing methods, sometimes mutually exclusive, tension may result even though the underlying goal of human rights for the repressed is the same.

Though both seek to end repression, their mechanisms of change are different (Ackerman 49). Practical nonviolence allows any of the four mechanisms of change: conversion, accommodation, coercion and disintegration. These options allow for any change, from the winning over of the opponent to the complete stripping of the opponent's power, whatever must be done to give the power of the haves to the have-nots. Principled nonviolence requires that the opponent be converted to the protagonist's...

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