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. 120-124.

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The transition

How can social defence be brought about?

Response 1 There needs to be much more research into the dynamics of nonviolent action and how it has worked historically, as well as investigation into the practicalities of conversion from military defence to social defence. (This process is called transarmament.) Also, we need to develop the arguments for social defence and take them to influential people in government and the military as well as the general public. Once it is realised that social defence is a superior approach, some governments will begin transarmament.

Comment This approach is based on the power of logic and the ability to introduce reforms from the top. Popular pressure on elites provides an additional incentive. This approach has the advantage of appearing independent of special interest groups and thus appealing to a wide cross section of the population, including those in top positions. Its disadvantage is its reliance on those who have the greatest vested interest in the present system to bring about change.

Response 2 In Switzerland in 1989, a citizens' initiative to abolish the army obtained more than one third of the vote. This was an astounding performance considering the limited resources of the group Switzerland Without an Army, and the opposition of the government. Groups in other European countries have been stimulated to promote similar initiatives. Eventually armies may be abolished by popular mandate. Of course, a country without an army will need to rely on nonviolent methods for defence.

Comment This approach is based on persuading people that armies are counterproductive and unnecessary, and using the mechanism of the citizens' initiative to bring about institutional change. The advantage of this approach is that it brings the issues to the general population and puts decision-making power in their hands. Its disadvantage is that there is no guarantee that even a majority vote will lead to actual abolition of the army, since there is no force, aside from the law, to make the government obey the vote. In addition, a campaign to get people to vote a certain way does not empower them to take the direct actions required for social defence. Finally, only some countries make provision for citizens' initiatives.

Response 3 We cannot expect the government to introduce social defence on its own. Therefore, the best approach is to develop the capacity of individuals, groups and communities to use nonviolent action to defend themselves and the things they believe in. Campaigns for social defence can be linked to campaigns by workers, women, peace groups, minorities and others.

The actual introduction of social defence is not likely to occur as a process of normal policy. Instead, nonviolent resistance may be stimulated by a crisis such as increased government repression, a military coup or an invasion. In such a crisis situation, many people will eagerly seek out information about resistance. A move to social defence might be possible in the aftermath of such a crisis.

Comment This is the model of "grassroots action", relying on local initiatives as the basis for social defence. Its advantage is that campaigns can be undertaken today to develop the capacity for nonviolent resistance. In addition, the linkage to social movements provides a foundation for experimentation and development of the practice of nonviolent action. Its disadvantage is that there is no orderly process of transarmament, no mechanism by which the military can be disarmed and social defence become generally accepted. This shortcoming is linked to the lack of any model for general nonviolent transformation of structures of power and privilege.

Response 4 The most fruitful way to develop social defence is by promoting social offence. There needs to be a vast expansion of action by people supporting nonviolent opponents of repression in other countries. This is less risky than challenging one's own military, and can unite people from a range of political perspectives. By gaining practical experience in nonviolent action against repression in other countries, people gain insights and skills that can readily be used against repression at home.

Comment The philosophy behind this approach resides in the familiar saying that, "the best defence is a good offence". Most people are genuinely altruistic and are willing to act against repression elsewhere, as testified by the success of Amnesty International. The advantage of this approach is the possibility of mobilising people and giving them experience in relevant nonviolent action, as well as developing international solidarity. Its disadvantage is the relatively limited repertoire of nonviolent actions that operate from far away, and also the lack of any programme for replacing the military.

Response 5 It is impossible to graft social defence onto a society that it is not suited for it. The best approach is to promote campaigns to change society to become more self-reliant, participatory and equal. When society has changed sufficiently in this direction, then introduction of social defence will be a natural process. People will only defend their society when it is worth defending.

Comment Instead of promoting social defence in a society built on hierarchy and inequality, this approach aims to change society so that it is worthy of being defended by its members. The advantage of this approach is the focus on the conditions for social defence, and on the systems of hierarchy and dependence which are linked to government and military repression. The disadvantage is that the possibility of mobilisation for social defence is postponed into the indefinite future.

General comment The question of how social defence could or should be introduced is a subject of some debate among its proponents. It is accurate to say that, because social defence has never been introduced, no one knows for sure how to do it. Differences concerning the best method reflect differing views about the nature of society, especially the possibility of reform versus the necessity of radical change.


What about all the soldiers? What will they do when armies are disbanded? What about arms factories? What will the workers do instead?

There are plenty of worthwhile things that need doing, in areas like health, education, housing and social welfare. At the end of World Wars I and II, there were rapid demobilisations of massive armies and very rapid shifts to civilian production. So it is possible to convert to a nonmilitary economy. There is a lot of work being done on "peace conversion", which means converting skills and machinery from military production to nonmilitary production.

References: Gene Keyes, "Force without firepower: a doctrine of unarmed military service", CoEvolution Quarterly, number 34, summer 1982, pages 4-25; Seymour Melman, The Demilitarized Society: Disarmament and Conversion (Montreal: Harvest House, 1988); Hilary Wainwright and Dave Elliott, The Lucas Plan: A New Trade Unionism in the Making? (London: Allison and Busby, 1982).

Contact: Center for Economic Conversion, 222C View Street, Mountain View CA 94041-9982, USA


Isn't social defence already part of the defence policy of some governments?

Response 1 Yes. Sweden has a policy of "total defence", and this includes military defence, civil defence, economic self-reliance, psychological defence -- and social defence.

In several other countries -- most notably Switzerland -- the general population is considered to be essential to military defence. Although the focus is on military resistance, nonviolent resistance would inevitably be part of this.

In quite a number of countries, including the Netherlands, Denmark and Austria, there have been official government investigations into the possibilities for social defence. I expect that government interest will expand in coming years.

Response 2 Not really. Although Sweden's policy of "total defence" includes social defence, it is really subordinated to military imperatives. In other countries, government interest in social defence has been limited and certainly has had no real impact on policy.

Government introduction of social defence has disadvantages. It may mean that control over planning is in the hands of the military, which will limit the prospects for future development. Furthermore, it may compromise a key function of social defence, namely to resist military coups.

Comment These two responses reflect two orientations to government introduction of social defence: the optimistic and the pessimistic. A compromise answer would mention both the advantages and disadvantages of government-sponsored social defence.


If social defence is so good, then why hasn't it been tried before?

Social defence is a challenge to our present political and economic system. It puts power in the hands of the people that can be used against employers, government officials and experts. It is fundamentally at variance with military hierarchies which keep power and knowledge in the hands of a minority. The continuance of the military system is in the interests of a powerful few, including governmental elites, weapons manufacturers and those whose privileges are ultimately defended by force.

A second reason is that the idea of social defence is fairly new. Although nonviolent action has been used for centuries, it is only since the 1950s that the idea of a nonviolent replacement for the military has been systematically developed.

Comment Many people believe that present society is organised in the best available way. It can be very challenging to argue that present social arrangements are fundamentally flawed. The usual idea is that certain individuals, political parties or businesses are corrupt and need to be replaced. It is much more subversive to argue that the system of government or corporate management is to blame for problems, and furthermore that "corrupt" individuals within the present system are essentially well-meaning and behaving naturally within their environment.

The idea of social defence raises all these issues. Members of the military are not doing anything wrong or evil; instead, the system in which they operate has unfortunate consequences. The standard belief is that problems in society are due to individuals rather than social structures. The promotion of social defence must confront this belief at one stage or another.


What can I do?

That's the subject of the next section.

General comments

Many questions can be answered, but that may not satisfy people's real worries. Social defence represents a deep threat to some people. One reason is that it questions the assumption that professionals (the military) can take care of problems. Social defence requires people -- including those sitting in the audience -- to take responsibility. That's scary.

Therefore, it can be important to respond in a way that takes people's fears into account. Arguments that are logical may not be enough.

Other questioners hold strong beliefs that make social defence difficult to accept. Left-wing supporters of guerrilla warfare are an example; members of armed forces are another. Once again, logical arguments may not be enough.