Social defence: a revolutionary agenda

A chapter published in Richard Jackson, Joseph Llewellyn, Griffin Manawaroa Leonard, Aidan Gnoth and Tonga Karena (eds.), Revolutionary Nonviolence: Concepts, Cases and Controversies (London: Zed Books, 2020)

Brian Martin

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Despite the recent upsurge in the use of and interest in nonviolent action, there has been little progress in transforming military systems. One important option is social defence, which is nonviolent community resistance to aggression as an alternative to military defence. Introducing a social defence system would have major implications for training, workplaces, communications, infrastructure and much else. Furthermore, social defence offers an agenda for citizen empowerment that can be used to help guide campaigns in the direction of revolutionary grassroots empowerment.

Keywords social defence, nonviolent action, military defence, civilian-based defence


In the past two decades, there has been a remarkable surge in the use of nonviolent action and an associated recognition of its power. Nonviolent campaigns have been instrumental in challenges to autocratic governments in Serbia, Lebanon, Ukraine, Tunisia, Egypt and other countries. The movements called the Arab spring led to mass media coverage of nonviolence ideas. Within the environmental, peace, antiracist and other social movements, nonviolence ideas are dominant. Among scholars, the pioneering work by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan (2011) has contributed to a dramatic increase in interest in nonviolent action, also called civil resistance.

Yet during all this time, there is one key institution, an institution premised on the threat and use of violence, that seems to have been almost untouched by the increasing use and interest in nonviolent action: the military. Throughout the world, militaries continue to receive massive funding used to train and pay soldiers, develop and deploy more advanced technologies for killing, and implement more sophisticated information-gathering capacities. As well, in many countries militaries have considerable popular support.

The military system serves multiple functions. In some countries, military forces are the backbone of repressive governments, used to quell popular movements. Elsewhere, military forces are used to invade other countries and fight seemingly perpetual wars. Everywhere, the military is the ultimate defender of the state and economic inequality.

Peace movements have long challenged wars, weapons and military systems. There have been many remarkable campaigns that have led to constraints on weapons systems and helped to deter war-making. Yet despite these successes, peace movements have made relatively little progress in developing and promoting alternatives to the military.

A century ago, during World War I, the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell (1915) proposed that a defence system could be constructed around the use of nonviolent methods. At that time, the idea of nonviolent action as a mode of struggle was relatively new. The struggles against oppressive rulers in Hungary in the mid 1800s (Csapody and Weber, 2007) and Finland at the end of the 1800s (Huxley, 1990), using various forms of noncooperation, inspired both thinkers and activists, notably Gandhi, to consider what today is called nonviolent action or civil resistance as a method for challenging oppression and injustice. What Russell and others then did was to apply this idea for the purpose of defending against foreign aggression. Instead of military defence, nonviolent methods could be used.

In the following decades, this idea was developed by a number of writers and researchers (Boserup and Mack, 1974; Burrowes, 1996; Drago, 2006; Ebert, 1968; Geeraerts, 1977; King-Hall, 1958; Lyttle, 1958; Martin, 1993; Niezing, 1987, Randle, 1994; Roberts, 1967; Sharp, 1985, 1990; Zahn, 1996). By the 1980s, in part inspired by the massive movement against nuclear weapons, there were a number of groups studying and promoting social defence, including in Australia, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. In the Netherlands, there were a dozen groups, each with a specific focus, for example on women and on public servants. However, this engagement dissipated after the end of the cold war. Both the peace movement and interest in social defence went into steep decline (Martin, 2014).

This was curious, because with the end of the cold war there was a widespread expectation of a “peace dividend”: resources directed to war preparedness and war could be redirected to peaceful purposes, such as health and education. However, there was hardly any reduction in military spending. This should have been a sign that defence against foreign enemies was, in large part, a pretext for military spending rather than the real reason. The military-industrial complex was entrenched in the US and other countries.

For several years, advocates for western military systems sought a plausible public rationale, and finally obtained one in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Terrorism became the new public enemy #1, justifying wars despite the fact that military interventions may stimulate the threat as much as contain it, and that there are many alternatives to military-based counter-terrorism, including diplomacy, reducing media coverage (Schmid and de Graaf, 1982) and addressing underlying grievances. Government anti-terrorism rhetoric, amplified by most of the mass media, made publics afraid of the terrorist threat to security.

This left the peace movement in an awkward position. There was a massive mobilisation against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but the wider visions of alternatives seemed to have little sway. The idea of peace conversion or economic conversion — conversion of military production to production for human needs (Melman, 1970) — had been influential in the 1970s and 1980s but fell off the agenda. Likewise, the idea of a nonviolent alternative to military defence mostly disappeared, while suggestions for nonviolent anti-terrorism approaches remained at the level of ideas, with little practical implementation (Hastings, 2004; Martin, 2002; Ram and Summy, 2008).

One explanation for the lack of interest in social defence is that it is deeply threatening to national and global power structures. The 1980s, when interest in social defence peaked, was also the time when neoliberalism grew in strength, countering the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Social movements were put on the defensive, and visions of alternatives became a lower priority than before.

In the rest of this chapter, I argue that social defence has potentially revolutionary implications. In the next section, I outline some of the facets of a social defence system. Then I address the implications of social defence for current power systems, and note that the increased interest in nonviolent action has not yet encompassed social defence. Finally, I present ideas about how social defence can be a guide to the sort of activism that tackles oppressive structures.

In practice, nonviolent action can be used for various goals, including defending the status quo, such as when opposing military coups (Roberts, 1967), pushing for reforms as in many environmental campaigns, challenging repressive regimes (Chenoweth and Stephan, 2011), and in fundamentally changing social relationships and institutions. What can be called revolutionary nonviolence is in pursuit of this latter goal, which can include challenging and building alternatives to patriarchy, capitalism, the state and other systems of inequality and hierarchy (de Ligt, 1937; Dellinger, 1970; Lakey, 1973; Martin, 1993). Unlike the idea of revolution as capturing and wielding state power, revolutionary nonviolence rejects both violence as a means and the capacity to use violence as an end point. As will be seen in the following discussion, the promotion of social defence at a grassroots level can be considered part of revolutionary nonviolence.

Social defence

In many conceptions (e.g., Roberts, 1967; Sharp, 1985), social defence is a direct replacement for military defence designed primarily to deter and defend against foreign military threats using nonviolent methods such as rallies, strikes, boycotts and fasts. On the surface, to many people this sounds absurd: how could such methods be effective against a determined opponent armed with the latest weaponry, or even just guns? But of course this is the same line of thinking that assumes nonviolent action can never succeed against an armed opponent, the same thinking that is inadequate to explain the many successes of nonviolent campaigns against dictators and against entrenched systems of oppression.

The usual explanation for the possibility that nonviolent resistance can win against an opponent wielding violence draws on the consent theory of power: power depends on cooperation (Sharp, 1973). The key here is the cooperation of the agents of the opponent, especially troops (Nepstad, 2011). If they refuse to obey orders, then the opponent lacks the capacity to impose rule. Noncooperation goes beyond soldiers, because invaders depend on a degree of acquiescence to do anything, for example, to obtain food and send messages.

This raises the question of the purpose of aggression. Instrumentally, it is to control a population and sometimes to extract resources or to use the land for colonisation. Hardly ever is the sole purpose of aggression to kill all the population. The only times in which this occurs is during wars, when both sides are using violence.

One of the most powerful tools of a social defence system is its refusal to use violence. This alone would be a threat to the loyalty of troops called upon to attack and occupy the territory of an unarmed population. However, social defence is much more than a refusal to use violence. It involves plans, preparation and training to resist invasion and occupation. One goal of an aggressor might be to extract resources, for example, agricultural products, natural resources and factory production. In these and other areas, there is a great dependence on people and technologies. Suppose, for example, an aggressor wanted to take control of mining operations. Resisters could refuse to operate machinery, so the aggressor would have to recruit other workers or bring in its own. But even this would be difficult if mining workers were prepared. Major pieces of equipment could be designed so that outsiders could not operate them, for example due to special codes put into computer systems. Alternatively, equipment could be sabotaged.

The aggressor might learn about preparations for resistance and thus be ready with some workers to run the mining operations. Therefore resisters need to have plans that would be effective even if they were fully known.

Mining requires more than digging minerals out of the ground. They also have to be transported, and this introduces a new set of opportunities for resistance. Transport workers could refuse to cooperate. Suppose the transport is by truck, and the aggressor soldiers threaten to kill drivers unless they cooperate. One resistance option is to sacrifice one’s life; a more palatable option is to design trucks with an emergency control mechanism. For example, when the emergency button is pressed (perhaps with a safeguard: at least two workers have to press it simultaneously), the truck cannot operate except with the input of codes known only to two individuals, one of them on the other side of the country or the world. Torturing the worker would not get the truck moving, and finding the second individual knowing the code could be a challenge. The details here are less important than the general approach: design human-technology systems so that, if resistance is desired, an opponent cannot operate them (Martin, 2001).

Another crucial part of a social defence system is communication. Defenders need secure communications to coordinate their activities and to prevent attackers from using surveillance methods to identify leaders. Despite the Gandhian imperative to be completely open, including revealing plans to opponents, confidentiality is often important when resisting aggression. This is especially the case when individuals within the attacking forces decide to assist the resistance, for example, by providing information about planned arrests or use of torture.

Communication is also important for making contact with the population of actual or potential aggressors. Typically in any military aggression, propaganda to justify actions is directed at people on the home front as well as soldiers. Therefore, an effective resistance will be prepared to counter such propaganda by telling what is really happening and being able to get this information to opposing forces and the associated population. This form of communication, a type of anti-propaganda, is important for deterrence. Well in advance of any assault, defenders would monitor politics and activities in any part of the world from which an attack might be made and develop means of convincingly communicating with populations. For example, it might be useful to invite credible figures from areas hosting potential threats to live in the community and provide regular reports about what it is like, including information about a commitment to nonviolence. In such an endeavour, communication is crucial, including capacities to counter hostile propaganda.

Another important facet of a social defence system is the capacity to operate parallel government and other vital functions. An aggressor might well target the official or de facto leaders in the society attacked — politicians, government officials, writers, celebrities or figures in business or churches — killing or arresting them or coercing their collaboration through threats to them or their families. To maintain the resistance, others need to be prepared to step into leadership positions and, just as importantly, every person needs to be able to continue their activities, not being dependent on leaders for guidance. In a workplace, if the boss is removed, then others need to have the skills and knowledge to take their place. Alternatively, workers might cooperate to do the work without a formal boss, so that the absence of one person does not greatly hinder activities. This sort of resilience would be important in every vital area, for example, transport, agriculture, energy, water and communication.

These three aspects of a social defence system — technology design, communication and capacity to protect vital functions — are sufficient to illustrate a key point: each one of them is threatening to government or corporate elites or both. For workers to be able to shut down production gives them immense power that can be used against bosses. For citizens to be able to communicate securely means being able to avoid surveillance by spy agencies. Being able to run parallel government operations means being able to coordinate the operations of society without current powerholders or without any powerholders at all.

In short, a population prepared to defend nonviolently against foreign aggression is also prepared to use the same skills against its own rulers in government, the corporate sector and elsewhere. This may be the underlying reason why governments have been so reluctant to introduce social defence, or even investigate it, despite the evidence suggesting its potential.

Social defence solves one of the problems inherent in having military forces. Militaries, though justified as needed to deter and defend against external enemies, are more commonly used to oppress their own people. In one insightful analysis (Tilly, 1985), militaries are described as operating protection rackets: they demand payment (funding), otherwise they may assault the people they are supposed to be protecting. Social defence, in contrast, does not have the same capacity to oppress a population, because only nonviolent means are used. With social defence, there is no prospect of a military coup. Although it is possible to imagine nonviolent struggles over various issues, such as salaries or building projects, the struggles do not involve violence. Furthermore, to the extent that popular participation in nonviolent struggles engenders a widespread understanding of the principles underlying nonviolence, including a Gandhian commitment to conflict resolution, there will be greater respect for others. Ideally, the introduction of social defence might trigger a spiral of ever greater commitment to nonviolence, the opposite of the more familiar arms races.

In contemporary societies, there is an ever-increasing division of labour and an assignment of tasks to specialists. This is apparent in health, education, food production and numerous other areas. This engenders an assumption that in nearly activity, someone else is responsible. Food is bought at supermarkets supplied by farmers. Ill health is treated by doctors. Learning is seen as something provided by teachers. Electricity is provided by a grid powered by distant generators and petrol is bought at service stations. This is a dramatic change from an era, not so long ago, when many people lived on the land and were relatively self-reliant. The rise of professional militaries fits within the contemporary shift to reliance on specialists.

The idea of social defence is challenging because it clashes with the usual dependence on professionals. Instead of relying on someone else for defence, it becomes a community responsibility.

Despite (or because of) the increasing dependence on professionals in all sorts of activities (Derber et al., 1990), there is a countervailing movement towards cooperation and collective self-reliance, which includes locally grown food, patient support groups for particular conditions, independent learning, and local renewable energy generation (Galtung et al., 1980). There are even some local policing initiatives such as the Guardian Angels in which citizens patrol streets and deal with disturbances. However, this sort of local self-reliance has yet to take hold in relation to defence.

A revolutionary agenda

In many formulations, social defence is seen as a policy measure introduced by governments as a better option than military defence (e.g., Sharp, 1985). This approach has never gained much support, arguably because empowering the population for resistance is threatening to governments, even the more enlightened ones.

If, on the other hand, social defence is seen as a grassroots initiative, there is no need to convince governments to support it. Indeed, governments are likely to be prime opponents. Social defence becomes society defending itself against the state. In this picture, social defence is not defence of the nation but defence of community or of ideals. Stephen King-Hall (1958) argued that the key thing to be defended was not territory but a way of life.

Beyond this, given that social defence has such far-reaching implications for power structures, it can be used as a guide for social change in the direction of citizen empowerment (Martin, 1993). This can be illustrated in a number of areas.

For workplaces, the implication of preparing to resist aggression and repression is for workers to develop the skills to run operations without managers or against the orders of managers, so that if a hostile force attempted to take over the workplace or to use outputs for its purposes, such efforts could be resisted. Being able to run operations without managers is needed in case managers are arrested or killed. Being able to run operations against the orders of managers is needed in case new managers are installed to serve the aggressors or in case existing managers are coerced to acquiesce. This workplace agenda is quite close to the long-standing objective of workers’ self-management or workers’ control (Hunnius et al., 1973; Roberts, 1973).

For maximum effectiveness, worker power against repression needs to be supplemented by the power of customers and communities. For example, if rail workers refuse to assist movement of aggressor troops and materiel, they need to be supported by local communities, for example, to hide workers sought for arrest or to refuse to leave trains when demanded by troops. They also need to be prepared if rail workers disable trains to prevent their use by aggressors.

If this occurs, communities need to be able to get by without trains. That means the transport system needs to be resilient, for example, being designed around walking and cycling. This would enable basic functions to be carried out if aggressors occupied train lines or blocked major roads as means of inducing acquiescence to demands. Likewise, communities need to be self-reliant in food, water, energy and medicines. The implication is that massive, capital-intensive facilities — such as fertiliser plants, large coal-fired electricity generators, massive solar arrays and large dams — should be avoided, because they are vulnerable to takeover or destruction. (They are also targets for terrorists.) Instead, smaller-scale, less costly options lay the basis for greater resilience. This includes organic farming, solar building design, local solar and wind power, and dwellings with water tanks. This direction for technological systems meshes with a long-standing push for appropriate technology.

A social defence system needs a communications infrastructure that enables defenders to communicate with each other, securely if desired, and to communicate with potential supporters as well as opponents. Mass media are not well placed for this. Indeed, television and radio stations are commonly the first targets in military coups. In general, broadcast media are potentially useful for repressive regimes whereas secure network media are more useful for resisters. Network media are now ubiquitous, with email, texts, smartphones and social media widely used. However, few of these media are secure. Surveillance of content and metadata is carried out routinely, often in the name of anti-terrorism, which means spy agencies have the capacity to monitor the activity of groups seen as threats. This also means that a repressive government, or one taken over by hostile forces, has the capacity to monitor opposition.

For a social defence system, the communications infrastructure would be designed to minimise the possibility of hostile surveillance. There are several ways to do this. One is secure encryption. This is not enough, because collection of metadata (such as the numbers called from a phone and when the calls were made) can enable mapping of communication patterns. Part of the solution is for the systems used by Internet service providers and telecommunications providers to be developed specifically to enable resistance to aggression. In other words, system design and system operation are integrated into resistance planning. What this might entail would depend on evolving technological possibilities. What would be avoided is any system in which information about individuals is available to a small group having the capacity to use it adversely, namely the current situation in which national security operatives collect massive amounts of communication data with no community-level control, a situation ideal for use by a repressive government.

The agenda for communications for a social defence system aligns with campaigning by electronic freedom groups such as the Electronic Frontiers Foundation. This agenda can also provide a direction for future campaigning initiatives, as well as programming initiatives.

In summary, planning for social defence offers an agenda for initiatives in workplaces, infrastructure and communications. Other areas are also important, including learning about foreign cultures and languages, developing skills in persuasion, developing processes for cooperative decision-making in a crisis, undermining the legitimacy of using violence, and restructuring economic and political systems to be resilient in the face of an attack or takeover.


Despite the increasing awareness and use of nonviolent action since the end of the cold war, there has been declining awareness of the idea of social defence, starting from a low base. It seems that military systems are so taken for granted that a nonviolent alternative is implausible, indeed utopian. Yet it is precisely in being utopian that social defence has revolutionary implications.

One of the problems is that social defence has so often been seen as a straightforward replacement for military systems, to be implemented because it is more effective. Given that states are based on monopolies over legitimate violence within territories, it is not surprising that few governments have ever shown any interest in social defence and that those that have shown an interest have kept it contained.

The wider ramifications of social defence can be encapsulated in the idea of grassroots empowerment. Rather than entrusting defence to a segment of the population (the military), it becomes a community responsibility. This has implications for education, skill development, town planning, communication systems, economic systems, workplaces and a host of other areas. In nearly every area, the agenda for social defence aligns with an agenda for individual and community empowerment and for building grassroots resilience against attack.

The skills and systems for social defence can readily be turned against governments, bosses and other sources of oppression and exploitation. This helps explain why social defence has been ignored. Instead, governments tout the dangers of terrorism and foreign aggression, assuming the solution is increasing reliance on the police and the military.

Participation in nonviolent action is commonly an empowering experience. It also enables a vision of a world in which struggles are waged nonviolently. The expansion of the use of nonviolent action and its greater legitimacy provide the most promising basis for the re-emergence of interest in social defence.

Social defence, if implemented in a far-reaching fashion, naturally leads to grassroots empowerment, thereby enabling challenges to systems of unequal power. This includes the military, most obviously, but also the power of owners and bosses over workers, of men over women, and of governments over citizens, among others. The agenda of promoting social defence as grassroots empowerment, including the transformation of social institutions, should be seen as an important facet of revolutionary nonviolence.


Thanks to Jørgen Johansen for valuable comments on a draft.


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