Social defence: how is it relevant today?

Published, in German, in FriedensForum: Zeitschrift der Friedensbewegung, No. 4, August/September 2009, pp. 43-45, translated by Christine Schweitzer. This is the English original.
pdf of published article (in German)

Brian Martin

Troops are massing on the border. They're planning to invade and take over.

We're prepared. Our society doesn't have an army anymore. We're prepared to resist - nonviolently.

We'll keep running things the way we want. If the troops try to take over a factory, the workers will refuse. If necessary, they know how to shut down production using emergency computer codes.

We'll refuse to do what the invaders want. Instead, we'll organise protests, everything from vigils to amusing stunts to make the soldiers laugh.

We're prepared to talk to the soldiers. A lot of us have learned their language and culture and the way they think. We'll get to know them personally and try to convince them that they should change their minds. We'll offer them jobs and other attractive alternatives. We've studied the psychology of incentives and modes of effective communication.

We've set up a comprehensive information and communication system. We're able to document everything the soldiers do, especially any abuses. We'll beam information to our many supporters here and across the world. We have secure methods to communicate with each other.

We've planned for this for years. In fact, we're going to use the attack to help bring about a change in neighbouring societies, by demonstrating our resolve and showing that defending without violence is a better way.


This is a scenario of defending a society without a military. This sort of system is called several names, including social defence, nonviolent defence, civilian-based defence and defence by civil resistance. It basically means people organising so they can defend and deter attack using methods of nonviolent action.

A few early proponents of nonviolence thought about the possibility of social defence. In the 1950s and 1960s, pioneers from several different countries - in Germany, Theodor Ebert - developed the idea of social defence in more detail, including psychological, social and practical elements. By the 1980s, social defence had been taken up by activists in several countries, especially in western Europe.

Many peace campaigns are oriented to specific goals, for example to oppose a specific war like in Iraq or to oppose a type of weaponry such as nuclear weapons. These campaigns do not propose getting rid of militaries altogether.

Prior to the 1980s, it was mainly pacifists - those opposed to all violence - who sought the end of all war. But pacifists envisaged a world without conflict. Advocates of social defence want a world without militaries, but in which there is still plenty of conflict - all waged nonviolently.

Social defence is radical: if implemented, it threatens the existence of states, which rely on militaries and police to maintain their existence. So it was never likely that governments would implement social defence. A few governments sponsored investigations, but without much practical impact. No government yet has made comprehensive efforts to prepare for nonviolent resistance to aggression.

After the end of the cold war, the peace movement collapsed and so did most of the interest in social defence. So what is its relevance today? There are three possibilities: as a goal, as a guide and as a method.

Social defence as a goal means trying to bring it about with the usual techniques: organising groups, developing plans, communicating information, convincing individuals and trying to win over organisations like trade unions, churches - even governments. This is the approach that has been used by activists so far - but with little success.

Most members of peace groups are not very interested in long-term alternatives; they would rather campaign on something that seems more practical.

For the wider public, social defence sounds unrealistic. When people think of "defence" they think of military defence. After all, every government says its own troops are for defence. The media and Hollywood movies assume that the only effective way to respond to aggression is with force. For many people, the idea of social defence is so strange as to seem silly. Without support from the public, it is very hard to create pressure to promote social defence, because governments and militaries are powerful defenders of military defence.

Social defence as a guide means using the goal of social defence as a way of assessing policies and campaigns. The basic approach is to ask, "Would this help people to defend their communities nonviolently?"

For example, consider housing design, normally influenced by architects and purchasers using criteria of cost, structural soundness, aesthetics, energy efficiency and other factors. Add in social defence: what sort of design will work best in helping a community defend itself nonviolently? Probably one that fosters regular interaction (to foster solidarity in resistance), inclusiveness (fewer homeless people, more solidarity) and self-sufficiency (to make survival easier if aggressors cut off electricity or other services).

The same sort of approach can be applied to energy systems, transport, education, mental health services, sports, language skills and cultural understanding. A particularly important area is communication: network communication technologies like the telephone, email and texting are especially suited for grassroots organising, whereas broadcast technologies like television and radio are easier for repressive governments to control - something clearly seen in countries like Burma, China and Saudi Arabia.

With social defence as a guide, many small decisions by individuals and policy makers can gradually move a society towards greater self-reliance in skills, attitudes and technologies and increase the capacity for social defence should the need arise.

Social defence as a method means using nonviolent action as tools in campaigns and in everyday life. And of course this happens all the time - every time people use nonviolent action. This includes high-profile actions organised by experienced activists, such as mass rallies, blockades and lock-downs. It includes actions that are familiar, such as strikes, that organisers and participants may not conceptualise as nonviolent action,.

There are also arenas for action that aren't usually thought of in terms of nonviolent action. In a business, for example, workers may refuse to cooperate with a bullying boss and instead support those who are targeted. In a church, women may organise to push for equality. The techniques used inside organisations often involve networking and communication skills that may not be dramatic but can be effective - and are part of what brings about changes in human relationships.

There are some new arenas created by communication technology. Cyberactivism includes using tools such as email and texting to organise actions, for example flash mobs that are created without central organisation. Cyberactivism also includes actions completely in the virtual sphere, such as using encryption to avoid surveillance or developing ways to break through government censorship.

Using nonviolent action in old and new ways involves people thinking in terms of tactics and strategy, using their skills, networks and power to achieve goals. The more people who are involved in such efforts, the more will develop the skills and confidence to act against injustice wherever they see it - including a major attack.

In a few countries, there is a risk of invasion, the classic threat treated in writing about social defence. But the more common threat is from within one's own society: unjust government policies, increasing restrictions on civil liberties, more power concentrated in governments and corporations, and oppressive global arrangements.

Social defence, in a broad sense, means people taking action, without violence, against unwelcome changes in society. To try to get rid of militaries is, in the short term, very difficult. It is far more promising to develop people's capacity and experience in taking action, in all sorts of arenas on all sorts of issues, and in thinking strategically. This will lay the foundation for effective resistance to emerging threats.

Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia and author of books and articles on nonviolent action. He is active in the group Schweik Action Wollongong that carries out nonviolence-related community research projects.

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