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. 109-115.

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Reservations (miscellaneous questions)

Nonviolence has been tried and failed, as in South Africa. Violence cannot be ruled out in liberation struggles.

It's just as true to say that violence has been tried and failed, so it is necessary to use nonviolence. The unarmed intifada has brought more worldwide support for the Palestinian cause than previous more violent actions.

In South Africa and other countries, nonviolence was not used to the full extent. Often people gave up in the face of repression. Nonviolent struggle does not mean that there is no violence from the other side.

Comment Although the claim that nonviolence has been tried and failed is, on close inspection, a weak one, it does point to the limited development of nonviolent practice. Not often enough are nonviolent struggles carried though against really repressive opponents. There are insights still to be learned about how to build morale through a long campaign entailing much suffering. Militaries, using the insights of psychology, have learned how to build morale in their relatively small, homogeneous and hierarchical organisations. A similar learning process is necessary to create the basis for a really powerful social defence.


Social defence is not guaranteed to succeed.

Indeed, it isn't. But neither is military defence guaranteed to succeed. The question is whether social defence is a better system when all things are taken into account.


Social defence won't work against nuclear weapons. It has no deterrent value.

Correct, if the enemy actually decides to use them. But neither does any other defence work against nuclear weapons once they are launched. (Civil defence provides some protection. It may be worth considering.)

The real question is whether social defence provides deterrence. Military armaments -- especially nuclear weapons themselves -- supposedly provide deterrence by threatening to devastate any attacker. Yet nuclear weapons also justify the threat they are supposed to defend against.

Social defence provides deterrence because it offers no threat. To attack an unarmed society with nuclear weapons would be the ultimate outrage, and cause an incredible backlash throughout the world, including in the attacking country.

Nuclear weapons have never been used against relatively poorly armed, "defenceless" countries that are outside nuclear alliances: Burma, Ruanda, Costa Rica, etc. Leaders of nuclear states realise that any such attack would be unthinkably counterproductive.


Social defence is not really peaceful. It perpetuates the idea of the enemy, and so has more in common with military defence than with a peace based on harmony throughout the world, which should be our real aim.

Correct! Social defence is a system designed for a world in which there can still be fierce social struggle, but in which violence is not used. It seeks an end to war, namely mass organised violence. It does not promise a golden age of total harmony.

I'm not sure whether or not world peace, in the sense of universal harmony, is possible. I support the quest for such a world peace, but I think it is only something for the distant future. (This is the same as what some proponents of the military say about social defence!)

Social defence provides tools for nonviolent struggle to confront the problems in the world today. Arguably, this is compatible with the search for ways to supersede the problems altogether.

Comment This is a standard criticism from some pacifists. I think it is best to be honest about the different philosophy behind social defence. It is really about seeking nonviolent, constructive struggle rather than abolishing the need for struggle at all.


I wouldn't want to defend this society. It has a small rich elite while many people live in poverty. There is no real democracy: a small ruling class manipulates politics to serve vested interests. Human rights are trampled on. Minority groups suffer enormously from discrimination and harassment.

Response 1 I agree that the present system has a lot of problems. But it may still be worth defending against even greater oppression and repression. A military dictatorship with widespread torture and killings would be much worse.

Response 2 You are correct. Social defence simply won't work unless people are willing to defend the core values of their society. Yet history shows that people will support a military defence of a repressive regime against a worse one, as in the Soviet resistance to the Nazis in World War Two. Surely the same could apply to social defence?

Response 3 The ability to wage nonviolent struggle against an invader also gives people the power to oppose inequalities and oppression in their own society. Joining a social defence effort might be just the way to challenge the shortcomings of the society.

Comment This really gets to the core of what defence is all about. What is worth defending in society? Who should act to defend it, and how? These fundamental issues are seldom discussed. Discussions about social defence often bring them to the fore, which is all for the better whatever stance people may take.


People wouldn't sit around to be attacked. They will resist violently whether you like it or not. I'll be heading for the hills to join the guerrilla resistance.

The challenge for social defence is to demonstrate that it is the most effective way to resist. Otherwise some people will head for the hills and possibly end up being massacred as well as helping to justify violent attacks on the nonviolent opposition.

A social defence system will offer plenty of opportunities for people who want to make courageous and potentially dangerous stands. In fact, some of the rebels in present society, who are often in trouble with the authorities, could well become the heroes in a nonviolent resistance. Perhaps a social defence system should provide real glamour for certain types of resistance, while trying to remove the romantic image of violence.

Comment Some of the people who say they'd join a guerrilla resistance are engaging in wishful thinking. Without practical skills and a deep commitment, violent resistance is a losing proposition. Most urban dwellers have many more skills for nonviolent resistance (though often without realising it). The key, therefore, is building their commitment.

The claim that people would prefer to join a guerrilla resistance does raise the important issue of the glamour attached to violence. Social defence is sometimes presented as entirely a carefully planned, rational and almost bureaucratic enterprise. Although planning and training are crucial, social defence also needs to be seen as exciting, challenging and involving real creativity. If it's all these things, it will almost certainly be a good defence.


There are too many social and cultural divisions in our society for people to unite and support a nonviolent resistance. The special conditions that allowed nonviolence to work in India simply don't apply here.

Actually, India was not (and is not) an especially promising place for developing a unified resistance. The country is severely splintered by religious differences, the caste system, economic inequality, language, and sexual inequality. The prospects are better just about anywhere else!

You are right that divisions in society weaken the ability to unite for a nonviolent resistance (or for a violent resistance for that matter). But sometimes the threat to a society is so overwhelming that differences are set aside for the time being. In any case, an important priority in the development of social defence is addressing inequalities and divisions in the society.


Couldn't social defence be a supplement to military defence?

Yes, it could be. A combined system of military and social defence has both strengths and limitations.

A combined system promises to have the advantages of both methods. The military defence would serve for deterrence purposes and to protect borders. But if the military were defeated, nonviolent resistance could then spring into action. This would solve a key limitation of military defence, namely that the consequence of military defeat is total surrender.

The disadvantage of a combined system is that the social defence system is compromised by the violence in the initial military defence. An enemy is less likely to be inhibited against attacking nonviolent resisters if the attackers have already suffered casualties. Furthermore, it becomes much harder to win support from within the country from which the attack comes, because the resistance can be painted as essentially violent.

Even if a total replacement of military defence is superior, there inevitably will be a period of transition in which capacities for both types of resistance exist. In practice, there will probably be situations in which military power isn't used to resist. For example, in the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, there was no military resistance. (Some soldiers helped the nonviolent resistance.) Furthermore, the greatest danger in most countries is a military coup rather than invasion, and of course military forces are the cause of the problem. All this is an argument to build the capacity for social defence as much as possible.

Comment There is an ongoing debate about whether combined military and social defence is an appropriate option. Supporters include members of military forces who are sympathetic to social defence, but who realise how difficult it is to argue for complete conversion.

There is little useful evidence about combining military and social defence. Sweden does this, but the component of social defence is too small to provide much insight.

One likely consequence of combining military and social defence is that the overall defence system, including social defence, is under the command of government and military planners. This could well be detrimental to social defence, for which large-scale participation and decentralisation of leadership is important.

It may be a diversion to get into debates about combined military and social defence. The imbalance between the two is so great now that the main thing is to expand the capacity for social defence.


I don't think most people have the moral commitment to nonviolence required for social defence.

Many people use nonviolence for pragmatic reasons, because it works better to defend the important things about a society with less loss of life and freedom. In other words, nonviolence is more effective than violence (especially taking into account arms races, military coups, nuclear weapons, etc.). A moral commitment to nonviolence is not required.

Some people would argue that a moral commitment to nonviolence is a valuable thing, and will make social defence more effective. But, at least currently, it is not an obligation!

Is a moral commitment to violence required for military defence?

Comment Some people think that there must be a moral commitment to nonviolence because they assume that violence is necessarily more effective than nonviolence. They also associate nonviolence with struggles in India and with Gandhi, which they assume were entirely motivated by moral commitment. These assumptions need to be challenged.

Raising the connection of moral commitments to military defence is a good way to stimulate thinking about this issue. In fact, many people have developed a deep-seated commitment to the need for force via the military.


Couldn't social defence be used to oppress people? It might be used by racists, for example. How can we make sure it is used for only good causes?

Response 1 You are right that nonviolent methods could be used for oppression. But this is not nearly as big a problem as it is for violent methods.

First, social defence depends on widespread participation. Oppression is much less likely when most sectors of the population are involved. Severe repression is usually carried out by a tiny fraction of the population.

Second, even if nonviolent methods are used in undesirable ways, the consequences are less severe than with violent methods.

Third, effective nonviolence requires communication and dialogue, unlike violence. The other side needs to be listened to as well as talked to. This means any oppressive use of nonviolent action will be much more likely to be brought to people's awareness.

Response 2 You have pointed to a crucial issue. It is vitally important that any action -- violent or nonviolent -- be directed to a good cause.

In many cases, governments use (or fail to use) nonviolent action in ways that supports oppression. For example, outside support for Iraq's repressive regime, through trade and diplomatic recognition, enabled it to carry out ruthless attacks on the Iraqi population as well as the invasion of Kuwait.

Social defence is a tool that can be used for the wrong cause. Activists need to carefully study the situation before intervening.


Social defence doesn't seem relevant here. There are no military threats looming and a military coup is unthinkable. Why are you so concerned?

Response 1 Although things may seem peaceful now, a threat could arise very quickly. Military alliances can change rapidly and friends become enemies. Just look at the changing relationships between the United States, the Soviet Union and China in the past century.

A military coup is not as unlikely as you might think. A social crisis, such as a severe economic downturn, could be the precursor of a coup. This is what happened in Uruguay. Once called "the Switzerland of South America", in a short period it came under the sway of a ruthless military government.

Response 2 As long as military systems exist, there is the chance of war and repressive government. During the century of "peace" in Europe after 1815, many people thought the problem of war was coming under control by use of treaties and alliances. The period after 1914 should have dispelled this myth.

Actually, now is a good time to develop social defence. Because there is no immediate threat, we have the opportunity to introduce and test an alternative system.

Comment This question highlights one of the dilemmas for advocates of social defence: when the danger of war is low, the perceived need for an alternative is also low, but when war is at hand, the use of nonviolent action may seem too late or too difficult. Perhaps the root of this problem is that defence is seen as someone else's responsibility -- namely the military's.