Nonviolence is the Goal: The Lanternblog Interview with Brian Martin
Editor’s Preface: This interview was conducted by email in 2006. “Ali” is an Iranian blogger and rights activist. His Persian language site can be found at lanternblog.com. As he states in the questions below, his site is censored and the last entry is dated January 2007. Please consult the notes at the end for further information. JG
Ali: Let me start with the basics and as the first question ask you as a thinker and writer on nonviolent movements to give us your definition of nonviolence?
Brian Martin: Nonviolent action includes methods such as petitions, rallies, boycotts, strikes, sit-ins, fasts and setting up alternative political structures. It’s often more informative to give examples of nonviolent action than present a formal definition. These and other such methods avoid physical violence against others, though nonviolent activists themselves may be assaulted or arrested. Nonviolent action is action that goes beyond conventional politics, so it doesn’t include lobbying or voting. Nonviolence can also be something broader, including personal behaviour that avoids oppression and efforts to promote ways of living together that are based on freedom, justice, equality and ecological sustainability.
Ali: I know that you are originally a physicist. As I’m in the field of natural science myself, the next question I ‘d like to ask is how you got into nonviolence research and studies? Can you please explain your starting ambitions for research and studies in this field?
Nonviolence is the method and nonviolence is the goal.
Martin: In about 1977 I first read about nonviolence. The idea meshed with my beliefs about how society ought to operate, namely people taking action on their own behalf in a way that is compatible with the goal: nonviolence is the method and nonviolence is the goal. At that time I was involved in the environmental movement, especially the campaign against nuclear power. One of the key issues concerning nuclear power was its link to proliferation of nuclear weapons, so that got me thinking about peace issues. In 1979 I helped set up a peace group in Canberra (Australia’s national capital), as there wasn’t one at the time. We soon started promoting social defence, which is nonviolent community resistance to aggression as an alternative to military defence, and I started writing about these issues. I don’t think being a physicist was an important factor in my interest in nonviolence. But having studied physics I felt more confident arguing issues about nuclear accidents, and nuclear weapons.
It was only many years later that I thought about the connections between science, technology and nonviolence. Nearly all the writings about nonviolence focus on social and psychological factors — such as unity, commitment and strategy — because they are most important. But science and technology are important too. There’s definitely a need for more scientists and engineers to be involved in researching and promoting nonviolence.
Ali: As you know there are two general groups of nonviolent activists; those who choose nonviolence as a way of life and those who believe in it as a way of dissolving conflicts. How do you see nonviolence?
Martin: I think both these orientations to nonviolence are important, and they overlap too. Where there is a supportive culture or tradition, such as religious belief, then nonviolence as a way of life makes sense. But in many places this is seen as peculiar and it makes more sense to promote nonviolence as a pragmatic alternative to violence. In Western social movements, nonviolent action is mostly used pragmatically, but some activists have personal commitments to nonviolence. As nonviolence becomes more recognised, I expect that more people will move from a pragmatic to a principled orientation.
Nonviolence has several advantages over violence: it causes less suffering, it wins over more people (bystanders and sometimes even opponents), and it is less likely to lead to a new system of oppression. There might be times when violence is more effective, at least in the short term, but once violence is used, it opens the door to even more violence and this soon undermines the effectiveness of nonviolence. So for maximum effectiveness, it’s probably better for more people to have a principled commitment to nonviolence.
Personally, I always say that I don’t know whether nonviolence is always superior to violence, because nonviolence hasn’t yet been tried enough. Militaries have spent billions of dollars and trained millions of soldiers. The amount of money and effort put into nonviolence is only a tiny fraction of this. Nonviolence deserves full-scale funding and testing over a period of decades. Until this happens, it is premature to say it doesn’t work.
Ali: There is a belief among some nonviolent activists that the time of violent change revolutions has come to an end and it’s a start of a new era where changes for the good will be happening through nonviolent movements. Do you agree with this point of view?
Martin: There is definitely a greater awareness about nonviolence among social activists in many countries. There is more information available and people are sharing their experiences about what works and what doesn’t. So it is quite possible that nonviolence will become even more widely used by movements.
But, unfortunately, it is also likely that some activists will continue to use violence. The mass media report on violence daily but seldom give any idea of how common or effective nonviolent action can be. Indeed, nonviolent actions are often reported as if they are violent. Governments often actually prefer their opponents to use violence, because it gives them greater justification to use violence against these opponents. So some governments try to provoke violence by movements, either indirectly through harsh policies or directly by using disguised police agents who join protest movements and advocate violence. This means that nonviolent activists need to become more sophisticated in developing new methods and countering government tactics.
Ali: Gene Sharp’s article “Structural Approach to Human Rights” introduced that term to the discussion of nonviolence. (1) He explains that achieving a long term and lasting recognition of human rights around the world could help to bring down dictatorships worldwide by denying human rights violators the power to perpetrate their atrocities. What is your opinion about this framework, and why do you think that the industrialised, rich countries work less on helping develop new free societies with nonviolent acts than on spending huge sums on their military?
Martin: Many government leaders say that they oppose repression and aggression but in their policies do the opposite. The most prominent example is the US government. It gives diplomatic recognition to countries where serious human rights violations occur. It produces massive amounts of weapons and sells them to repressive governments. It develops and manufactures technology that can be used for torture and sells it to countries where torture is known to occur. Many other governments do the same.
Furthermore, the US government violates civil liberties itself. Government agencies spy on US citizens and harass dissidents. Torture is used in foreign prisons like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and in US prisons too. In most countries, the armed forces are not needed to protect against foreign enemies. Their most important function is protecting the government from challenge. Militaries, and militarised police forces, are far more likely to be used against citizens than against foreign threats. Governments cannot be relied upon to promote human rights. That’s why it is vital for social movements to maintain their efforts.
Ali: In your book Nonviolence versus Capitalism (2) neither dictatorship nor capitalism is described as an “ideal” social system. Yet you consider bringing down a dictator the “easy case ” for a nonviolent struggle. Considering the fact that in capitalist society human rights violations are far fewer than in totalitarian societies, aren’t capitalist societies less likely to use violence against nonviolent protestors? Why is using nonviolent methods against dictators “the easy case “?
Martin: In a dictatorship, the human rights abuses are more obvious, and more people know the source of the problems, and they know the solution: get rid of the dictatorship!
The problem is easier to recognise and the solution is more obvious. Economic systems, including capitalism, can cause poverty, alienation and inequality, with damaging secondary effects including higher death rates for the poor. This is especially serious in poor countries being squeezed by neoliberal economic policies and corrupt governments. Large numbers of people may suffer or die, but this is not as dramatic or obvious as imprisonment of dissenters or massacre of protesters. The challenge for those who support nonviolence is to develop ways to turn poverty and exploitation into big issues just like dictatorship and repression.
Ali: Dictatorships and military governments are the biggest violators of human rights but from my personal point of view a dictatorship can also result in destroying the heritage and natural resources of a country as happened in Afghanistan under the Taliban, and in Iran where forests were devastated. What do you think about this point of view?
Martin: Militarism is definitely linked to destruction of the environment, both in dictatorships and in systems of representative government. Production of weapons, maintaining armed forces and the running of military exercises use large amounts of resources and leave a polluting aftermath. Wars themselves are incredibly damaging to the environment. The military exerts a strong influence on scientific research agendas, often steering towards developments that are bad for the environment, such as military-inspired nuclear research pointing the way towards civilian nuclear power.
There’s a strong connection between peace and environmental movements. Often their concerns overlap, such as in opposition to nuclear technology or wars over resources such as oil. The two movements share experiences in activism, including nonviolent action. There’s a fair bit of mutual support in terms of campaigns, though on the other hand sometimes their agendas compete with each other. The environmental movement has had greater success in building organisations and campaigns that last over years or decades, whereas the peace movement tends to surge and fade in response to external events. So peace activists should learn from the environmental movement how to sustain their efforts and organisations over the long term.
Ali: Let me now shift the discussion from a theoretical point of view towards the potential practical applications of such methods in the future and focus on my country, Iran. According to your book, Social Defence, Social Change (3) you consider the 1978 revolution in Iran a “change mainly carried out by nonviolent means.” What do you think went wrong, and why was the final result so “disastrous”?
Martin: The Iranian revolution was carried out by nonviolent means, but there were few people with a vision of a nonviolent society and how to achieve it. As soon as the Shah was overthrown, most people in the struggle assumed that their role was over. They needed to keep active to prevent the rise of a new repressive government.
This points to an area where nonviolence strategies need to be improved. Nonviolent activists are much better at opposing injustice than they are in promoting a new system.
Another problem was other governments. Leaders of nearly all the major governments assume that government control, including using force, is natural. So in the case of
Iran, foreign governments provided no assistance to promote citizen power that could challenge or replace rulers.
Ali: How can you expect a population of sidelined and disappointed people to usurp an oppressive government by means of nonviolence? [Note: This question was preceded by a description of Iranian politics, which we have consigned to Endnote 4. JG]
Martin: Let me respond in stages. First, we know from historical experience that popular nonviolent action can be successful against repressive governments. Famous examples include the toppling of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines in 1986, the collapse of Eastern European communist regimes in 1989, the forced resignation of Indonesian President Suharto in 1998 and the ending of Milosevic’s rule in Serbia in 2000, all as a result of nonviolent action. In addition, dozens of dictatorships in Africa and Latin America have been toppled by popular nonviolent insurrection.
Second, nonviolent action usually works better than violent resistance. Armed struggle is often defeated – there is not a single example of a successful popular armed overthrow of the government of an industrialised country (though there are cases of military coups in industrialised countries, such as Greece). Even when armed struggle is successful, the human costs are often enormous: the war for Algerian independence from France caused a million Algerian casualties out of a population of only 10 million. Two million Vietnamese were killed in their liberation struggle. In a nonviolent struggle, many people may die, but never yet have deaths occurred at the level of armed struggles.
Third, no method can provide a guarantee of success. Neither violence nor nonviolence is a sure path. All that anyone can do is pick the method that has a better chance of success. Success here includes external changes, such as a change in rulers, policies or systems of government, and grassroots changes, such as greater confidence and knowledge, stronger alliances, greater commitment to equality and justice, and practical arrangements that build in these commitments. So what should be done when the situation seems difficult or even hopeless, when there seems to be little support for action against oppression? This is a question of tactics and strategy, and it is important to understand that many struggles take a long time. Remember that the Indian struggle for independence from Britain lasted many decades. The process of the struggle may be just as important as the immediate result. After India gained independence, there was horrific violence between Hindu and Muslim communities that led to the creation of Pakistan. It might have been better if the independence struggle had taken even longer, and strove to forge stronger Hindu-Muslim links.
Many struggles start very small but, when the situation is right, quickly gain support. In East Germany in 1989, rallies against the government started small but grew rapidly, over the space of few months, until the rulers decided to quit. The Iranian Revolution also had this feature of rapid expansion. When the situation is difficult and few people are willing to take action, it is time for careful long-term planning. What actions will best lay the groundwork for future expansion of activity? If you read about Gandhi’s campaigns, you can get a feeling for how difficult it was to choose and carry out actions that attracted support.
The choice is the familiar one: what should be done? Each individual has to find a personal answer. There is always something worth doing. Sometimes it is small and apparently insignificant. But there is no point in dramatic actions that fail. If the situation is bleak, then it’s worth thinking about what can lay the groundwork for the future, when the situation is more promising.
Finally, I think it’s wise not to trust in governments as the solutions to social problems. There are a great number of examples of governments that have broken promises and have betrayed social movements. Election campaigning can be a trap if it drains away energy that could go into grassroots action. Furthermore, after the election, activists may reduce their energy, either through false expectations of the new government or through discouragement, depending on who is elected.
Ali: Currently freedom of press in Iran is one of the worst in the world, many political websites are being blocked or monitored (even a small weblog like ours); there is no independent TV or radio station (at least not inside the country). Iran has the greatest number of imprisoned journalists in the Middle East, the government has control over all sources of power, most importantly oil, and uses all its power to suppress any movements, as they have ruthlessly done it before. Considering these facts, do you think it is possible to awaken the public to their own power?
Martin: The fact that the government has to use heavy-handed censorship shows its weakness: the government is actually afraid of what the people will do with a bit of independent information. It can be useful to analyse information flows. How can information get to a person? Possibilities include face-to-face conversation, telephone calls, leaflets, emails and newspapers. Then look at the blockages, namely the ways that the government (and other groups) prevent information getting to people, distort the information, or give false information. Then examine ways to get around the blockages. This could be encrypted email, personal reports from people who have travelled to other countries, newsreaders giving subtle messages, and a host of other techniques. Then examine each of these techniques for their advantages and disadvantages. For example, which technique is best for building support?
The next stage is to carry out a very small initiative and see how well it works. Does it overcome these information blockages? Are more people willing to be involved? Does it help people understand what can be done? Then the whole cycle can begin again: analysis, planning, campaigning, evaluation.
If there are lots of small independent individuals and groups taking initiatives, learning what works and sharing their insights, this is a powerful foundation for building larger campaigns.
Ali: A nonviolent protest was organized by the Union of the Single Bus Company of Tehran and Suburbs (SBCTS), the bus drivers unions. They wanted higher wages, more rights, and were opposed to the illegal imprisonment of the leader of their union. A general strike was planned but the government used teargas and other methods against the strikers and their families; many wives and children were beaten as well. According to eyewitness accounts, thousands of security forces in plainclothes, police and militias backed by the Revolutionary Guard’s anti-riot units attacked drivers, workers and personnel, wounding at least 50 seriously, and arresting hundreds. The imprisoned drivers went on a group hunger strike, a deliberate nonviolent tactic. The governmental media was completely silent about this enormous violation of human rights. Tehran’s Mayor, (General Mohammad Baqher Ghalibaf, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards Air Force, and a former chief of police) declared the SBCTS strike “illegal” because, he claimed, the union was not an “officially registered organisation”, although the union is one of the oldest workers unions in the country. What should be the policy against such ruthless violations of human rights?
Martin: When the government makes an attack like this, it has the potential to be counterproductive, because people see that it is grossly unfair. There are five standard methods that perpetrators use to inhibit outrage from their actions. One, they cover up the action, so people won’t know what has been done. Two, they denigrate the targets. Three, they give an explanation to justify what happened. Four, they set up an official process to give the appearance of justice. Five, they use intimidation and bribery against the targets and observers.
In what you’ve told me about the SBCTS example, there is cover-up by the government media, an official explanation for the action (the lie that the SBCTS is illegal), and intimidation through arrests and beatings.
The reactions of the Iranian government to the transit strike are predictable, so activists need to be prepared. If you know that the government will try to cover up its abuses, then you need to be prepared to expose them, using tape recorders, cameras, witness statements, and ways of communicating and publishing the information. If you know that the government will try to discredit protesters, then you need to dress and behave in a respectable fashion, and if possible have respected people join the protest. For each of the methods that the government is likely to use, activists should make plans to oppose or get around them. Government attacks can become an opportunity to create greater awareness and support. The goal is to make the attacks backfire.
(1) Gene Sharp’s article “Structural Approach to Human Rights” is available at <http://www.christusrex.org/www2/fcf/struct.html>; retrieved September 2016.
(2) Brian Martin, Nonviolence versus Capitalism, London: War Resisters’ International, 2011.
(3) Brian Martin, Social Defence, Social Change, London: Freedom Press, 1993.
(4) I’d like to give you a short description of the Iranian situation of recent years from my personal point of view. After the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), a period of oppression ensued that lasted about nine years. But we grew tired of the oppression and voted for the reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami in the presidential election of 1997, although none of my circle believed he would win. I was doing my bachelor’s degree at the time and remember how the university came alive, and everyone was excited about the possibility of change. To our astonishment 80% of the electorate turned out, and Khatami won an unprecedented 70%, heralding in new freedoms, especially more freedom of press. Many newspapers sprang up. But the hardliners, seeing their power in danger, began to push back. Their first effort was to close down the liberal press. Student protests against closing a reformist newspaper were ruthlessly suppressed. Khatami won a second term in 2001 but the reformist majority in parliament failed to exercise their legal power to stop the oppression. As a result, people began to lose hope for lasting change; intellectuals and students were sidelined or arrested. In the 2005 election many of them made the bad decision to boycott it, which only made the situation worse. The fundamentalist candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won, and, besides the presidency, the fundamentalists also took back the parliament, and Teheran city council.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia and vice president of Whistleblowers Australia. He is the author of 14 books and hundreds of articles on dissent, nonviolence, scientific controversies, democracy and other topics. Our thanks to “Ali” and lanternblog.com (Persian language), and nonviolence.lanternblog.com (English of some contents) for this interview.