Chapter 1 of

Nonviolence versus capitalism
by Brian Martin
(London: War Resisters' International, 2001)

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Nonviolent action is the most promising method for moving beyond capitalism to a more humane social and economic system. Approaches based on using state power -- including state socialism and socialist electoralism -- have been tried and failed. Dramatic changes are definitely needed because capitalism, despite its undoubted strengths, continues to cause enormous suffering. Nonviolent action as an approach has the capacity to transform capitalism, though there are many obstacles involved.

With the collapse of most state socialist systems, there has been since 1990 much triumphal rhetoric about the superiority and inevitability of capitalism. But it is far from an ideal system -- very far. It is producing economic inequality on a massive scale, with the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer. It is destroying traditional cultures, replacing them with a homogeneous consumer culture that lacks authentic community. It is causing enormous environmental damage, undermining biological diversity and depleting resources. It is making the lives of most workers bleak and meaningless, while denying work to those who do not fit the available slots.

But capitalism does produce a massive quantity of goods. It harnesses human acquisitive drives to the task of production unlike any other system. Within market parameters, it provides goods and services in a generally responsive fashion, and has dramatically raised material living standards in many countries. Capitalism does have strengths. Do the weaknesses really matter, if there is no alternative?

Actually, it is absurd to say that capitalism is inevitable. This is really just an excuse for doing nothing to examine and promote improvements and alternatives. The way society is organised is due to the actions of people, and these actions can change. History shows a tremendous range of possibilities for human patterns of interaction. Furthermore, technological development is creating new options for the structuring of work, communication and interaction. Considering that capitalism is only a few hundred years old and continues to change, and that there is nothing approaching agreement that the current system is ideal, the assumption of inevitability is very weak indeed.

Defenders of capitalism assume that there are only two basic options: either capitalism or some sort of system based on authoritarian government, either state socialism or some other sort of dictatorship. (Capitalism is assumed to go hand in hand with representative government, but this ignores those countries with capitalist economies and authoritarian politics, including fascism and military dictatorship.) But of course there are more than these two options. There are other ways of organising economic and social life. The challenge is to figure out which ones are worthwhile and worth pursuing.

Even setting aside options that are completely different, capitalism is by no means a fixed and final system. It will be transformed and will transform itself in coming decades. It could become better or it could become worse, depending on what people do about it.

The two most prominent strategies against capitalism pursued during the 1900s were state socialism and socialist electoralism. Both were attempts to use the power of the state to transform capitalist relations. State socialism -- as in the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China -- relied on capture of state power by a revolutionary party which, in the name of the working class, eliminated private ownership and replaced it by state ownership. In practice the communist party became a new source of rule, in many cases highly repressive.

Socialist electoralism is an attempt to bring about socialism more gradually, gaining state power through the electoral system, increasing the level of state ownership and putting restraints on capitalists. It has been pursued in countries such as Sweden, France and Italy. In practice this strategy has failed by being watered down. Rather than bringing about a transition to socialism, left-wing parties have instead become managers of capitalism, fostering social democracy, in effect an enlightened reform of capitalism. In many cases they have eventually adopted the same policies as their political rivals.

It may seem that capitalism, state socialism and social democracy are very different, but they all rely on the power of the state and hence, ultimately, on violence for control of society. Capitalism relies on state power to protect private property, state socialism relies on state power to run both the economic and political system and social democracy relies on state power to manage the economy. So at a deep level -- the level of power for social control, and the ultimate reliance on violence -- these three approaches have much in common.

Nonviolent action offers another road, with the potential to be a radical challenge to capitalism without relying on state power. There are hundreds of methods of nonviolent action, including leafletting, strikes, boycotts, marches, sit-ins, refusals to obey and setting up alternative institutions. These methods have been used extensively in all sorts of settings. The most well known are the campaigns for Indian independence led by Gandhi. Here is a list of some of the most often cited highlights of nonviolent action from 1900 onwards.

These are all examples of major challenges to aggression, repression and oppression carried out largely or entirely without violence (though of course violence is often used against nonviolent activists). These events include resistance to military invasion, toppling of repressive regimes and challenges to oppressive social systems or hazardous practices. A number of social movements, notably the feminist and environmental movements, have made nonviolent action an integral part of their campaigning.

But what about nonviolent action against capitalism? A look down this list reveals that not a single one of these highly prominent actions is specifically targeted against capitalism.

Actually, there has been an enormous range of nonviolent action against aspects of capitalism -- just not usually at the dramatic level of the above examples. [1] For example:

As well as these initiatives that challenge aspects of capitalism, a close look at just about any aspect of capitalist society will reveal challenges using nonviolent action. Consider advertising, a crucial part of consumerism and the commodity-based culture. Responses have included rejection of advertising messages (as in "no junk mail" signs on mail boxes), campaigns against particular styles of advertising, and the creative defacing of billboards.

Nonviolent resistance to capitalism has occurred from the beginning of the industrial revolution through to the November-December 1999 protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organisation and subsequent protests in Washington DC, Prague, Melbourne and other cities against the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other global economic management forums. While there is ample nonviolent action within and against the capitalist system, this has not so often been conceived in terms of a nonviolence framework. Instead, the rhetoric and imagery of class struggle, including armed struggle, have had greater saliency in anticapitalist movements. Especially among Marxist organisers, there is neglect of or even antagonism to nonviolence.

The problem is compounded by a neglect of capitalism in writing and thinking on nonviolence. Gandhi's constructive programme of village democracy and self-reliance was certainly noncapitalist, although capitalism as a system was not widely seen as one of his main targets in campaigning. However, nonviolence writers since Gandhi have largely neglected capitalism, and indeed this neglect can be traced to the heart of the consent theory of power used by Gene Sharp as the theoretical foundation of nonviolence theory.[2] Sharp's model assumes a dichotomy between rulers and subjects: if subjects withdraw consent, the power of rulers dissolves. This model works best, as a foundation for practice, when rulers are obvious, as in a military dictatorship.

From the point of the view of the ruler-subject model, capitalism is a complex system. There used to be just a few owners at the top (and there still are a few such as Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch), but increasingly ownership is dispersed among shareholders and managerial power dispersed within corporate bureaucracies. "Withdrawing consent" sounds easy enough in principle but what does it mean in practice: boycotting all corporations or refusing the boss's orders? Most people participate in the market system in various ways that are not easily captured by the ruler-subject picture.

Capitalism is, in many ways, a more robust type of system than a dictatorial regime. Market relations draw people in, making them a part of the system, whereas a dictatorship has a more difficult time providing jobs and benefits to a large segment of the population. Injustice is experienced under both capitalism and a dictatorship, but with a dictatorship the source of injustice is easier to pinpoint. For nonviolence theory and practice, dictatorship is an "easy case": people know what needs to be challenged, and the primary questions are about how to mobilise support and maintain campaigning momentum in the face of repression. Something more sophisticated is needed to transform capitalism.

Many of the most powerful instances of nonviolent action have been largely spontaneous, with little planning or training. This is often the case in resistance to military coups, such as the 1920 Kapp Putsch in Germany, the 1961 Algerian Generals' Revolt and the 1991 coup in the Soviet Union. In each case the nonviolent resistance was improvised on the spot, partly because there was little or no warning that a coup would occur. Even in some of the longer campaigns, the level of planning and training has been low, such as the intifada in Palestine, which burst on the scene as a surprise to both Israelis and the Palestinian leadership and whose course over the years was more an organic development than a carefully calculated trajectory.

Spontaneous nonviolent action has a better chance of being successful when people have an intuitive grasp of what needs to be changed. In the case of a military coup, the coup must be defeated and the status quo (or better) restored. The intifada was a change of tactics -- it was mass unarmed action rather than terrorism, which had been used unsuccessfully by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation -- for a widely understood goal, namely ending the Israeli occupation. But if the goal is not so obvious to participants, then spontaneous nonviolent action -- or violence, for that matter -- is far less likely to be effective.

It was Gandhi who pioneered planning for nonviolent action. He saw overt action as part of a long-term strategy for social change, requiring great care in preparation, planning, discipline and training. His example has been taken to heart by a number of social movements, such as the US civil rights movement and antinuclear campaigners. Realising that an action may lack impact without sufficient preparation, if it is aimed at the wrong target or is ill-timed, campaigners have spent great effort in social analysis, community education and nonviolence training, in order to maximise effectiveness.

With planned nonviolent action, there is a much greater capacity to deal with complex systems of oppression, by working out targets that deal with the source of problems as well as tapping into popular concerns. A strike for higher pay can be valuable to exploited workers but does not challenge the relationship between employers and workers, whereas a work-in to demand a greater say in what is produced aims at a more fundamental change in the relationship.

It is worth noting that the strategies of Leninism and socialist electoralism are calculated, indirect and not "spontaneous." Workers are expected to support political parties claiming to operate on their behalf rather than acting directly against those they see as their exploiters, such as their immediate bosses. Many workers have been sufficiently convinced that they channel their efforts away from "obvious" targets such as prominent capitalists, instead aiming at party building or election campaigning. Anticapitalist activists pursuing a strategy based on nonviolence can learn from this experience: workers and others are quite capable of understanding a long-term strategy for change that initially might not seem as intuitive as tackling obvious targets. The challenge is to develop a suitable strategy that engages large numbers of people.

There is another important reason why nonviolence planning is needed to tackle capitalism: the ways that exploitation and damage under capitalism are disguised. This is nothing new or peculiar to capitalism, since every system of exploitation and inequality is justified by some rationale, whether it is the divine right of kings or the naturalness of the caste system. Yet the process of obfuscation is less transparent with capitalism. The exploitation involved in trade -- for example, selling bananas in exchange for computers -- is not so immediately obvious as is the source of repression when police beat and torture dissidents. The mystifications involved in the commodity form were described insightfully by Marx in the mid 1800s, yet it remains a challenge to expose the exploitation involved.

Information -- including records, computer programs, correspondence, and much else -- plays an ever larger role in capitalist economies. This causes additional factors to come into play that make exposure of capitalist oppression more difficult. Governments use "disinformation" -- intentional telling of lies and half-truths -- to advance their interests. Corporations and governments use public relations to give their messages the right "spin," both to boost favourable images and block damaging stories. Advertising fosters a mind-set in which it is natural to assume that commodities are the solution to problems, hindering critical thinking about the whole commodity system. Hollywood filmed entertainment creates attractive but deceptive images of what life can be like. The result is an information-rich environment that is immensely enticing. Contrary viewpoints, although sometimes censored, are often tolerated on the margins, giving the impression that there is a genuine marketplace of ideas.

This rich information environment provides new challenges for nonviolent activists. The traditional Gandhian philosophy of satyagraha involves seeking the truth through dialogue, with nonviolent action as a means of encouraging opponents to engage in the dialogue. That approach makes some sense when the facts of repression and oppression are reasonably obvious, where there is an obvious source of oppression and where there are opponents with whom activists can engage in dialogue, directly or via intermediaries. These conditions no longer apply. Much of the oppression in capitalism is built into the system of ownership and exchange: there are few obvious "opponents" who by their actions can change the system. Furthermore, the system for producing "unreality" has become so pervasive that straightforward dialogue seems ever more elusive. This is another reason why, for nonviolent action to be used effectively to transform capitalism, a deeper analysis is required, plus careful planning. A system built on a surfeit of information (with plenty of distortions and imbalances) requires a different sort of strategy than a system built primarily on censorship.

There is another reason why nonviolent action has not been seen as a strategy against capitalism: it has been mostly used as a method for promoting reform within capitalism. Strikes, boycotts, work-to-rule, rallies and many other methods have been used to improve workers' pay and conditions, oppose harmful products and block damaging developments. These are all quite valuable, but are seldom seen as challenges to capitalism as a system. As a result, nonviolent action is not recognised as a potentially revolutionary strategy.

"Revolution," namely a fundamental change in social relations, is of course the rhetoric of Marxism. "Reform" is seen as tepid and inadequate, even though a series of reforms may end up having a more lasting impact than a revolution that is quickly corrupted or reversed. Leninist strategy often relies on nonviolent action for early stages but on violence for "advanced" stages of overthrowing the ruling class. One result is that those who perceive themselves as revolutionaries seldom think of nonviolence as the primary means.

There are several ways to address this. One is to develop the model of nonviolent revolution, which has been espoused by Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan, Erik Dammann and others.[3] Another is to scrap the very image of revolution as too tainted by violent and masculine imagery, and to substitute an alternative, such as to think in terms of goals and methods of equality, justice, truth and participation. One challenge is that the vocabulary of "revolution" has been taken over by advertisers.[4] Any alternative vocabulary is similarly susceptible.

In any case, if nonviolent action is to become a strategy against capitalism, to replace it or transform it into something qualitatively different, then the strategy needs to go beyond reform. The key here is strategy. For nonviolence to be effective against capitalism, improved understanding is needed, both of capitalism and of nonviolence itself.

Social analysis and social problems

To undertake an effective campaign requires some level of investigation. For example, a campaign against genetically engineered crops needs information on environmental risks, likely impacts on farmers and organic alternatives, plus insight into government and corporate strategies and how they can be countered. Knowledge and insight are invaluable, especially in a field where advanced science and technology play such a major role.

The professionalisation of intellectual work, especially in universities and research laboratories, has led to incredible specialisation. This is most true of technical fields such as biochemistry and computer engineering. The only groups that can take advantage of most such research are those with large resources, especially governments and major corporations, which are able to hire researchers and set the agenda for much of the research. In contrast, protest groups have little money or capacity to hire researchers or to fund expensive investigations. With a budget even one tenth of that devoted to military research and development, enormous advances in nonviolent struggle could be made.[5]

Lacking the capacity to hire researchers or fund their own research, social movements rely heavily on investigations carried out by sympathisers, especially academics. There are many academics who study issues of interest to activists, but unfortunately most of them aim to communicate primarily to other academics. The academic system rewards scholars who publish in refereed journals, namely those relying on critical scrutiny of submissions by peers, which is a recipe for dealing only with what impresses scholars and not with what is beneficial to activists.

This has led to a way of thinking that affects even those scholars who are sympathetic to action. The basic approach is to get the theory right and then draw conclusions. The main orientation is to analysis and critique, with very little on alternatives or strategies. This sort of work can be quite valuable -- some of it is truly inspiring -- but it is not likely to be the foundation for participatory understanding.

What is needed is not theory from on high, developed by theoreticians and dispensed by movement gurus, but theory that can be used and refined daily by rank-and-file activists.[6] Within some social movements, this occurs routinely. Many feminist activists have some familiarity with ideas from feminist theories, including some conception of patriarchy, alternatives and strategies; for this sort of "practical feminism," much academic feminism is irrelevant.

Sometimes low-cost investigations can be carried out by participants. Investigations by activists are increasingly both possible and important. A search for information on the World Wide Web, plus sharing of information with other activists, can quickly lead to valuable material.

Within the nonviolence movement, there is a reasonable level of understanding of nonviolence theory, especially the methods and dynamics of nonviolent action. Nonviolence theory is an outgrowth of the practice of nonviolence and has not "gone academic" the same way as many other areas, perhaps because there are fewer careers to be made in the field. In order to apply nonviolence theory to capitalism, there needs to be a compatible analysis of capitalism, one that can be used by activists.

Analysing capitalism is a major enterprise. There are vast bodies of writing in various traditions, including neoclassical economics, Marxism and non-Marxist political economy. There are insights to be had for nonviolent activists, but to extract them is no easy task. Most of the writing is uncritical of capitalism, while most of the critical works give little attention to strategy for activists. There is a rich banquet for theorists, with only a few crumbs for activists.

Rather than sifting through analyses of capitalism, an alternative approach is to start with the alternative to capitalism and the method of obtaining it and build up activist-relevant theory from that. In the case of nonviolence, the alternative and the method are jointly specified: a nonviolent society created through nonviolent action.

That is the approach taken here. The starting point is nonviolence, which is both a method and a goal. "Nonviolence" is used in a broad sense, including participation and dialogue as well as lack of physical violence. Capitalism is analysed from the perspective of how it can be challenged and transformed using nonviolent action. Of course, it is useful to draw on some of the many insightful analyses of capitalism. But the key point is this: rather than develop a comprehensive analysis of capitalism first and then draw implications, instead critiques of capitalism are drawn on just to the extent that they are relevant for a nonviolent challenge. That means in addition that the analysis must be reasonably clear to activists. A high-level analysis understandable only to a few scholars is not much value except to the scholars themselves.

Needless to say, what I offer here is just one contribution to the process, which to be successful must involve many people grappling with ideas and using them in conjunction with practice.


In the spirit of activist-relevant analysis outlined above, chapter 2 deals with nonviolence, outlining methods, giving examples, presenting arguments for and against, and examining theory. For those who have been exposed to nonviolence theory and practice, this will be familiar ground.

Special attention is given to weaknesses of nonviolence, at a theoretical level, for challenging distributed systems of domination such as capitalism. The implication is that nonviolence theory must be supplemented by an appropriate analysis of the system being challenged. That may seem obvious, but in fact nonviolence theory relies on a very general theory of power and works reasonably well in practice only because many activists have a very good practical insight into local systems and dynamics of power. This combination works moderately well for obvious systems of domination, such as dictatorship, but for more dispersed systems of power such as capitalism, activists need deeper understandings.

With this background on nonviolence, chapter 3 looks at capitalism. Some of the obvious problems with capitalism are outlined, such as exploitation of workers, but only briefly.

The main part of the chapter describes three central aspects of capitalism that are specially relevant for developing a nonviolence strategy. The first is the most obvious: capitalism's link with systems of violence, including government, the military and police. Without the ultimate sanction of violence, capitalism would not survive. But this reliance on violence is hidden through the routine operation of the market and needs to be brought into brighter view. Nonviolent action is ideally designed to challenge and undermine systems based on violence, so the key here is to design nonviolent actions that tackle the violent underpinnings of capitalism.

But although capitalism depends ultimately on violence, for most of the time it is sustained by belief systems and everyday behaviours, including those associated with consumerism, property, entitlement, individualism and selfishness. Challenging such beliefs and behaviours is a difficult task. Nonviolent action offers one approach, but not just any action will serve. Careful examination of options and alternatives is needed. It is in the area of beliefs and behaviours that the most effort is needed, especially because capitalism has an unparalleled capacity to coopt ideological challenges.

A third central aspect of capitalism that is specially relevant for developing a nonviolence strategy is destruction of alternatives. In the rise of capitalism, prior systems and alternative practices, such as community-controlled production, cooperatives and collective provision, were destroyed or marginalised. One reason why capitalism seems like the only option is that alternatives have been eliminated. Nonviolence strategy in this area is reasonably straightforward: it is the building of alternatives, in the tradition of Gandhi's constructive programme. But this is not easy in the face of the power of capital to destroy and supplant alternatives.

Chapter 4 deals briefly with conventional anticapitalist strategies, especially Leninism and socialist electoralism, examining them through the lens of nonviolence theory. None of them has succeeded in permanently replacing capitalism with a better system, though it can be argued that social democracy has limited many of the worst capitalist excesses. From a nonviolence perspective, a central problem with these strategies is that they rely on the use of violence, namely the power of the state, for bringing about change. The existence of a system of violence means that it can be, and often is, used to support the powerful and repress challengers. Thus, these anticapitalist strategies have given only a limited amount of power to the people, retaining much power in the hands of a ruling group, whether it is communist party elites or politicians and bureaucrats in a social democratic government.

Taking note of these failed and flawed challenges to capitalism is especially relevant because some of the greatest hostility to nonviolent alternatives has come from socialists. It might be concluded that the collapse of communism has opened a tremendous opportunity. A nonviolent challenge to capitalism now has better prospects because the alternative socialist road, based on violence, is largely discredited.

Chapter 5 looks at nonviolent alternatives to capitalism, spelling out some possible principles for organising society without the capacity for organised violence. It turns out that there are not many comprehensive visions of society that are explicitly constructed on a nonviolent foundation. To illustrate possibilities, four models are outlined: sarvodaya, anarchism, voluntaryism and demarchy. By examining these, it becomes apparent how little of the current capitalist system is viable without the ultimate sanction of violence.

One of the features of nonviolence is that it is self-consistent: it incorporates its goals within its means. In other words, nonviolent methods are used to help attain a nonviolent society. Looking at models of a nonviolent society is part of the process of developing and refining this self-consistency.

With a background of method, critique and alternative, it is time to examine strategies. This is the task of chapters 6 to 12. Chapter 6 discusses principles for assessing strategies and proposes a short check list for assessing campaigns, including questions such as "Is the campaign resistant to cooption?" This check list is used in the following chapters to assess a range of actual and possible campaigns.

Chapter 7 examines workers' struggles, including campaigns for better wages and conditions, for jobs, workers' control, green bans and whistleblowing. Some campaigns, such as workers' control, provide a potent challenge to capitalism whereas others do not. It is noted here and later that even if a campaign does not challenge capitalism as a system, it may still be very worthwhile for other reasons.

Chapter 8 looks at sabotage, an approach on the border of nonviolent action. Chapter 9 probes environmental activism, in particular campaigns against pesticides, nuclear power and local developments. Chapter 10 analyses social defence, which is nonviolent community resistance as an alternative to military defence, as a means to undermine capitalism. Chapter 11 addresses three campaigns challenging corporate globalisation: the campaign against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, the campaign against genetically modified organisms and the development of free software. Chapter 12 assesses several economic alternatives -- community exchange schemes, local money systems and voluntary simplicity -- as strategies against capitalism.

Chapters 7 through 12 illustrate how to use a check list, developed through a nonviolence analysis, to assess strategies for their potential to challenge capitalism. The assessments given here are not definitive. What is important is for activists to decide on their own check lists and choose their campaigns and methods according to their own goals. Finally, chapter 13 discusses the relation between campaigning and the more subtle process of cultural change.


[1] Naomi Klein, No Logo (New York: Picador, 1999), gives an insightful survey of recent popular challenges to corporate power.

[2] Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action[ (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973), pp. 7-62. Sharp's ideas are discussed in more detail in chapter 2.

[3] Erik Dammann, Revolution in the Affluent Society (London: Heretic Books, 1984); Dave Dellinger, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Essays (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971); George Lakey, Strategy for a Living Revolution (New York: Grossman, 1973); Brian Martin, Social Defence, Social Change (London: Freedom Press, 1993); Martin Oppenheimer, The Urban Guerilla (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1969); Geoffrey Ostergaard, Nonviolent Revolution in India (New Delhi: Gandhi Peace Foundation, 1985).

[4] The title of a new glossy magazine is Revolution: Business and Marketing in the Digital Economy. A billboard -- an ad for Adobe -- shows several men in suits with their neckties ablaze, with the web site address Then there is the Apple Computer ad showing Gandhi and his spinning wheel, with the Apple slogan "Think different," flying in the fact of the fact that Gandhi was a trenchant critic of both capitalism and much modern technology.

[5] Brian Martin, Technology for Nonviolent Struggle (London: War Resisters' International, 2001).

[6] This view is developed in Brian Martin, "On the value of simple ideas," Information Liberation (London: Freedom Press, 1998), pp. 143-163.