From: Brian Martin, "Social defence: arguments and actions", in Shelley Anderson and Janet Larmore (eds.), Nonviolent Struggle and Social Defence (London: War Resisters' International and the Myrtle Solomon Memorial Fund Subcommittee, 1991), pp. 84-89.

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The basics

What is social defence?

Response 1 Social defence is a nonviolent alternative to military defence. It is based on widespread protest, persuasion, noncooperation and intervention in order to oppose military aggression or political repression. It uses methods such as boycotts, refusals to obey, strikes, demonstrations and setting up alternative government.

Response 2 Social defence is nonviolent community resistance to aggression. This includes defence against military aggression, defence against government oppression of local communities, and defence against male violence against women. Social defence is nonviolent defence of the vital features of society -- including human rights, local autonomy, and participation -- against all oppressive forces.

Note These two answers correspond to two orientations among supporters of social defence. They can be called the narrow and the broad definitions. Each definition has its advantages and disadvantages. In the following answers, the narrow definition will usually be assumed. To supplement the examples here about resistance to military aggression, those favouring the broad definition can readily provide examples from struggles by feminists, environmentalists, peace activists and others.


Is social defence the same as civilian-based defence?

Yes. There are actually several different names that all mean about the same thing. The main ones are social defence, nonviolent defence, civilian-based defence and civilian defence.

Note It is usually unfruitful to get into discussions about names, except with people promoting social defence who need to agree about what they are going to call it. The different names do have different connotations. The expression "civilian-based defence" usually refers to nonviolent defence operating under direction of a government, whereas the expression "social defence" often refers to nonviolent defence based on grassroots initiatives.


I don't see how passive resistance can possibly succeed against an aggressor.

Social defence is not passive. Its core is nonviolent action, and this includes strikes, fraternisation and setting up alternative institutions. There are also offensive measures to be taken, such as communications to undermine international and domestic support for the aggression. Social defence does not mean just sitting there and accepting whatever the aggressor inflicts.

Comment It is a common misconception that nonviolence is passive. The expression "passive resistance" has been used to describe a type of nonviolent resistance, but usually it is better to avoid it since it gives the wrong impression.


We've just had a protest action at a local military base. Isn't that social defence?

No, not if social defence is defined as an alternative to military defence. Social defence is nonviolent community resistance designed to counter military invasions and coups. Your action is an excellent example of nonviolent action in a more general sense.

Of course, there is a very close connection between social defence and nonviolent action: social defence is based on the use of nonviolent action. Social defence means that the functions of the military are eliminated or replaced (or, at the very least, supplemented). There can be lots of nonviolent action in a community but if the military is still present, there is the potential for waging war and carrying out repression.

Comment This answer is based on the narrow definition of social defence. Using the broad definition, the answer might be "yes" if the action were part of a strategy to develop community resistance to oppression and aggression.


Why not just keep using military defence? It's the established system, after all.

There are several serious problems with military methods.

(l) War. Military forces can be used to attack as well as to defend. The weapons of modern war are designed for killing vast numbers of people, and also can devastate the environment. As long as armies and armaments are present, there is a possibility that they will be used. There are numerous wars occurring around the world today, and there is a continuing possibility of the extensive use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as well as increasingly deadly "conventional" weapons.

Since the development of planes and missiles, everyone -- civilians as well as soldiers -- is on the front line in a war. Social defence provides a way for everyone to take responsibility for defence, unlike military methods.

(2) Arms races. Military methods tend to encourage the very threat they are intended to defend against.

If a country relies on social defence and cannot launch a violent attack, then other governments will find it harder to justify their reliance on violence for defence. It is harder to convince soldiers of the justice of their government's war if they are attacking an unarmed opponent.

Since social defence contains no military capability, nuclear attack and aerial bombardment become pointless and harder to justify.

(3) Military repression. One of the greatest threats to freedom and democracy in many countries today is military forces. If military forces take over the government, who will stop them? Who guards the guardians?

With social defence, this problem does not arise, since social defence is based on popular participation and so removes the dependence on a professional defence force. The nonviolent methods used against a foreign aggressor can also be used against local military forces that try to take power.

(4) Reduced democracy. Military forces are based on hierarchy and obedience. They train people to kill on command. This is contrary to the equality, questioning, mutual respect and dialogue that help promote a democratic society. The influence of military systems often inhibits or thwarts greater participation in the rest of society.

Social defence is much more compatible with a society based on equality and wide political participation.


What methods are used in social defence? You've mentioned boycotts and strikes. Can you be more specific?

Gene Sharp, the leading researcher on nonviolent action, has identified 198 different types of nonviolent action and given examples of each one. Sharp divides the methods of social defence into three categories: symbolic actions, noncooperation, and intervention and alternative institutions.

Symbolic actions, including:
formal statements (speeches, letters, petitions);
slogans, leaflets, banners;
demonstrations, protest marches, vigils, pickets;
wearing of symbols of opposition (such as the paper clips worn by Norwegian civilians during the Nazi occupation);
meetings, teach-ins.

Noncooperation, including:
social boycott, stay-at-home;
boycotts by consumers, workers, traders; embargoes;
strikes, bans, working-to-rule, reporting "sick";
refusal to pay tax or debts, withdrawal of bank deposits;
boycotts of government institutions;
disobedience, evasions and delays;
mock incapability ("go slow", "misunderstandings", "mistakes").

Intervention and alternative institutions, including:
sit-ins, nonviolent obstruction and occupation;
sabotage (such as destruction of information and records);
establishment of parallel institutions for government, media, transport, welfare, health and education.

Note Rather than listing these in an abstract fashion, the most persuasive thing is examples that are meaningful to your audience. If there has been an effective strike recently or a potent symbolic protest, refer to it and then comment "Now just imagine this sort of action being well prepared in advance and systematically used against an aggressor."

A second option -- usually second best -- is to refer to historical examples of nonviolent actions. So, if you are mentioning the effectiveness of speeches, you could refer to the speech by the leading church figure that led to the ending of the Nazi euthanasia programme. If you learn one or two historical case studies really well, you can develop the examples in a systematic fashion. This is preferable to picking examples from too large a range of cases, which sounds less coherent and may open you to criticism from people who know, or think they know, about the cases themselves.

Reference: Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973).


How can nonviolence work? We know that violence works by forcing or frightening people into submission. How can nonviolence be anywhere as effective?

Social defence is based on the principle that no regime -- whether democracy or military dictatorship -- can survive without the passive support or nonresistance of a large fraction of the population. In other words, all societies are built on consent, cooperation and obedience. Social defence is designed to systematically disrupt this consent, cooperation and obedience and replace it by noncooperation and disobedience.

If, in a business corporation or a government body, large numbers of the workers refuse to carry out instructions, set up their own communications systems and mobilise supporters from the outside, the top officials can do little about it.

This idea applies to military forces themselves. If only a few soldiers refuse orders, they can be arrested or shot and discipline maintained. But if large numbers refuse to cooperate, an army cannot function. This occurred during the Algerian Generals' Revolt (see description), in the collapse of the Russian armies during World War One, during the Iranian Revolution (see description) and many other times.

Note This is an abbreviated account of the consent theory of power, as presented by Gene Sharp and others. This theory has its own limitations, but theoretical debates are not appropriate for most discussions of social defence. Rather than give this sort of answer, an alternative is to give examples of the effectiveness of noncooperation and not worry about the theoretical explanation.


How did the idea of social defence develop?

The idea of nonviolent resistance to aggression can be traced to a number of writers, including Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Elihu Burritt (a Christian pacifist), William James and Bertrand Russell. The campaigns led by Gandhi in South Africa and India were important in developing the idea of a nonviolent alternative to war. Gandhi himself began advocating defence by nonviolent resistance in the 1930s. A number of writers were inspired by Gandhi and developed his ideas. In the 1930s, advocates of a nonviolent substitute for war included Richard Gregg, Bart de Ligt, Kenneth Boulding, Jessie Wallace Hughan and Krishnalal Shridharani.

Perhaps the first fully-fledged description of a national social defence system was by Stephen King-Hall, a British writer and former naval officer, in his book Defence in the Nuclear Age published in l958. King-Hall thought that British parliamentary democracy could be better defended from communism if the military were abolished and replaced by organised nonviolent resistance. King-Hall's treatment moved social defence onto the agenda as a pragmatic rather than just a moral alternative.

Shortly after this, the idea of social defence was developed by various researchers including Theodor Ebert in West Germany, Johan Galtung in Norway, Adam Roberts in Britain and Gene Sharp in the United States. Since then, these and other researchers have worked on the idea, inspired both by historical writing about nonviolent struggles and by contemporary use of nonviolent action in a variety of campaigns. I can recommend a number of excellent books and articles on social defence.

Note Any brief summary of the history of ideas is bound to be incomplete and unfair to the contributions of some people. Furthermore, the full history of ideas of nonviolent struggle is yet to be written. Perhaps the most important point here is the interaction of theory and practice. This is why it is useful to emphasise Gandhi and his campaigns and also some more recent campaigns such as the US civil rights movement, the peace movement, the feminist movement and the environmental movement.


What about practical action towards social defence? Who is supporting it today?

Nonviolent struggle has been used for thousands of years in a wide variety of contexts. (See examples.) But, as mentioned before, the idea of social defence has really only been around since the 1950s and 1960s, and it is not yet widely known among the general public.

There is a relatively small degree of formal endorsement of social defence. Many green parties, such as the West German green party, endorse social defence, as do a number of activist groups.

On the other hand, a large number of groups -- such as environmental groups and social justice groups -- make very sophisticated and conscious use of the methods of nonviolent action. The development of these skills and experience in nonviolent action lays a good foundation for the development of social defence.

Note For a list of activities and contacts, see "Actions".