Principles for antiwar strategies

from Brian Martin, Uprooting War (London: Freedom Press, 1984); this is the revised 1990 version.
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What principles should underlie antiwar strategies? When taking action to oppose war, it is useful to examine principles. This helps to avoid lurching from action to action, or to inaction, without any basis for knowing what to do next, and how. In formulating an antiwar strategy, principles are important to help avoid inconsistencies and compromises which can be devastating at a later stage. Looking at principles can be helpful in sorting out priorities in ongoing campaigns.

Here I outline several principles which I think are important for antiwar strategies. These are not meant to be dogmatic, everlasting, universal principles. Rather, my aim is to suggest the sort of principles which can be considered in developing strategies to remove the roots of war. Whether these are the most appropriate ones will only be determined by the test of political practice.

Structural change

If all the military weapons in the world suddenly disappeared, this would not eliminate the problem of war. If current social structures, such as states and other systems of political and economic inequality, remained, then it would not be long before armaments built up again to the previous level. Nor would the problem of war be solved if disarmament were decreed and carried out by a dominant institution, such as a world government. It would be easy for resisting groups to hide weapons, including nuclear weapons, or to make new ones with presently available knowledge and resources. Disarmament as a goal is not enough for confronting the problem of war. It is also necessary to transform the structures that lead to war.

War cannot simply be eliminated while leaving the rest of society as it is, namely by freezing the status quo. Yet that is what is assumed in efforts to stop war by appealing to elites. The structural conditions for war need to be removed and superseded by alternative structures which do not lead to war.

In what direction do dominant social structures need to be changed? In very general terms, the direction needs to be towards greater political, social and economic equality, towards greater justice and freedom, and towards greater control by people over the decisions which influence their lives. Methods for moving in these directions are discussed in later chapters.

The principle of structural change is a far-reaching one. The focus of peace movements in the 1980s, as it was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, has been nuclear war. But even accepting the unlikely possibility that state elites would ever dismantle their nuclear weapons, eliminating nuclear weapons would not eliminate war, nor would it prevent the creation of weapons more deadly than nuclear weapons. The goal needs to be more than disarmament, and certainly much more than nuclear disarmament.

Social structures shape people's attitudes, and people's attitudes shape the creation of structures. I take it for granted that an antiwar strategy must involve changing people's attitudes. To form the basis for a social movement, there must be some people with critical views of the present situation and visions of an alternative. The question is not whether people's attitudes should be changed, but whether this should be a primary focus for social action, or a consequence of other actions.

There are dangers in two directions. Focussing on changing attitudes by persuasion can leave unexamined the structures which shape attitudes, such as the state, employer-worker relations and the media. But focussing exclusively on changing structures also has its limits: if people's attitudes are not changed, alternative structures can quickly revert to the old ones. The ideal is simultaneous structural and personal change.

Personally I think it is essential that strategies be based on promoting structural transformation. Participatory campaigns with this goal will promote changes in attitude as they proceed. Given the present emphasis of many people in the antiwar movement and elsewhere on changing attitudes, there is little chance that individual change will be neglected.

Social change is seamless

Focussing on the roots of war, such as political and economic inequality, suggests that war should be seen as only one of a range of social problems, and that the elimination of war must go hand in hand with elimination of other problems. In terms of strategies, this means that war should not be given undue attention compared to other social problems. Campaigns to oppose sexism, heterosexism, economic exploitation, racism, poverty, political repression, alienation and environmental degradation are also a contribution to the overall antiwar effort in as much as they are oriented to challenge and replace oppressive social structures.

An implication of this principle is that campaigns of different social movements should be linked at the level of strategy, and should be mutually stimulating and provide mutual learning. This already happens to some extent, for example when feminists emphasise the fostering of aggressiveness in men as a factor in war, or when antiwar activists support environmentalists opposed to nuclear power.

On the other hand, antiwar movements, like other social movements, often adopt strategies or demands which have little relevance to other social problems. One example is the demand for a nuclear freeze, promoted heavily in the United States in the 1980s. This demand, that the United States and Soviet governments halt new developments in or additions to their nuclear arsenals, has little immediate relevance to other social problems. This is no coincidence. The nuclear freeze campaign, which is based on influencing state elites by public pressure, has worked through existing structures rather than attempting to transform them.

To claim that the problem of war, or nuclear war in particular, is so pressing that it should be given priority over other issues is bad politics. It cuts the antiwar movement off from other social movements vital to opposing war-linked structures. And it often leads to strategies such as the nuclear freeze which do not address the roots of war. The aim should not be to set up hierarchies of oppression, but to link social issues and movements in theory and action.

An orientation towards structural change is often connected with awareness of the connections between social issues. For example, the British journal Peace News, which has the subtitle 'for nonviolent revolution' and is oriented to structural change, features articles on Third World problems, feminism, workplace democracy and many other issues.

Means and ends

A broad principle for antiwar strategies aiming to transform structures is that the means used for transformation should be compatible with the end desired. If means and ends are not compatible, it often happens that structures are not really transformed but just given a new appearance. For example, military coups almost never lead to an equitable or nonviolent society, but rather replace the old rulers by a new but similar group.

The compatibility of means and ends is a longstanding principle of anarchism. This principle distinguishes anarchism from Leninism, which is based on achieving the Marxist goal of a classless and stateless society by very different means, namely capture of state power by a vanguard elite.

The principle of keeping means compatible with ends has been taken up by many groups and individuals in social movements since the 1960s. Students opposing bureaucratic university administrations attempt to use participatory democracy in their own organisations. Feminists confront sexist power dynamics in their closest personal relationships. Environmentalists attempt to live their own lives in an environmentally conscious way. Opponents of exploitation of animals become vegetarians. This is what is meant by 'living the revolution.' This basic principle has many implications for different aspects of antiwar strategies.


The aim of any principled antiwar strategy is a world without organised violence. If means are to reflect ends, antiwar strategies must be based on a renunciation of violence. Indeed, it is simply incongruous to use violence to eliminate the need to resort to violence. World War One was called by some 'the war to end war.' This illusion has been less common since, but its implications are not so often acted upon.

The use of violence or the readiness to use it has several consequences for a social movement. It often causes suffering. It abdicates moral superiority and alienates potential supporters. It requires secrecy and hence leads to less democratic decision-making. And if successful, it can lead to a violent and authoritarian new ruling elite. For example, the introduction of state socialism in Russia, China and Vietnam this century in each case was based on a violent seizure and maintenance of power. It can be argued that this (in addition to the specific historical conditions of these revolutions) has contributed to the continued militarisation of these societies.

Nonviolence is often adopted as a provisional tactic by social movements in Western countries. For example, most Western communist parties oppose violence as counterproductive in present political circumstances. But they do not rule out violent methods in principle. Consequently it is not surprising that communist parties, however progressive their policies in other areas, have devoted little attention to the problem of eliminating war.

Nonviolence as a principle rather than as a tactic for antiwar strategies has had its greatest strength within the Gandhian movement in India. It is also a key principle for some Western individuals and social action groups, such as many pacifists.

In the West, nonviolence is seldom adopted due to religious beliefs, but rather is practised for more pragmatic reasons. A strong case for nonviolence results from considering the effects of acceptance of violence by a social movement on itself, such as increased secrecy, reducing public sympathy and support, and more centralised decision-making.

The use of nonviolent methods helps transcend the dilemma of comparing existing 'structural violence,' such as poverty, exploitation and preventable illness, with the human costs in promoting violent revolution. In practice such comparisons are probably seldom carried out by Third World guerrilla fighters, whose involvement in liberation struggles is as much a reaction to state violence and oppression as it is a consciously decided strategy. But to the extent that a social movement has a choice of options and the opportunity to carefully consider them, a decision to promote the use of violence requires a certain confidence (perhaps arrogance) and an assumption of correctness that justifies inflicting direct physical harm. Nonviolent methods do not avoid this problem entirely, since they can lead to lost income or prestige for those acted against. But nonviolent action on behalf of an unjust cause or as part of a misjudged campaign at least minimises immediately caused suffering.

The issues of violence and nonviolence have been the subject of considerable discussion and debate within social movements. This examination is important in determining to what extent nonviolence is or should be a principle in itself and to what extent it is or should be a matter for pragmatic consideration.


The structures underlying war are ones of centralised power, which allow elites to make the most far-reaching decisions. Alternative structures would allow much more participative and decentralised decision-making. Such structures also need to be the basis for social change in this direction.

The way in which social movement organisations are structured is a decision with strong implications for strategy. Hierarchical organisations, in which a few people at the top exercise formal power, are effective in interacting with other hierarchical organisations. This is how the war system operates. If social movement organisations are also hierarchical, they will fit in with and reinforce hierarchy elsewhere, and have little potential for affecting dominant social structures. Just as it is futile to leave the problem of war to state elites, so it is futile to leave it to elites in opposition groups.

The principle of participation also implies that social change should proceed at the rate that people want to take it, not at a rate determined by established elites or indeed by elites in revolutionary or social action groups. This principle does not rule out strong advocacy or concerted action within social movements, but it does rule out unilateral decision-making or manipulation from the top.

There should be little worry that full participation in social movements will reduce social activism. Historically, formal leaders of social movements have more often served to hold back than to push ahead the rank and file. The trade union movement is a case in point. In any case, a participatory social movement is a much more solid base for sustained action than a hierarchical movement where all the key decisions emerge from the top.

Long-term struggle

Fundamental transformation of states, bureaucracies and social inequality is not something that can happen overnight. Even if formal structures were overturned quickly, considerable learning and adaptation by people would be necessary before alternatives could be established. After all, most people, through experiences in school and work and exposure to the media, have learned to live in and accept bureaucracies and the state. Learning different modes of interaction and identifying with different goals is not an easy matter. Therefore a strategy to remove the roots of war must be a long-term strategy.

The goal is a world without war and which remains without war. The goal thus is for a society which is stable and resilient with respect to not using organised violence. The means compatible with this goal are not ones of cataclysmic revolution, but of patient and resolute efforts towards desired social goals.

Gradualist strategies are not popular with many social activists. Indeed, the desire for quick change is one reason why appealing to elites is such a popular method: only elites seem to have the power to act quickly. Leninist parties hope for a rapid seizure of power. Many anarchist groups also look toward a quick revolutionary change, putting their trust in the instincts of people to create non-hierarchical structures more or less spontaneously. There is some basis for this belief, such as the experience during the Spanish Civil War beginning in 1936 in which communities collectively organised production, distribution and services. But in most such crisis conditions, past experiences and traditions and available ideas and resources make a big difference. Anarchists had played a strong and active role in Spain for many decades before the Civil War. In contrast, for example, when the Saigon regime in South Vietnam collapsed in 1975, there was no spontaneous creation of self-managing structures. Instead, the North Vietnamese army took power. The experience of many other collapses of major social institutions also shows that trust cannot automatically be put in crisis and spontaneous responses to it as the solution to the problem of structures underlying war. Similarly, attempts by groups to live communally often have failed because they were poorly planned, allowing old habits to fill the vacuum left by the inadequacy of supposedly beneficial spontaneity.

The principle of long-term struggle means that antiwar strategies should not be premised on the inevitable breakdown of capitalism, state socialism or any other major social structure. Campaigns against these structures must be consciously planned and promoted. Yet, crisis should not be ignored! A long-term strategy should include preparation for taking advantage of crises.

Who will lead the way?

The goal of a world without war is for a world without groups which find organised violence useful in gaining or protecting privilege or power. To incorporate this goal in the methods for social activism means allowing and encouraging all social groups to participate in efforts to eliminate the roots of war. This means that soldiers, police, corporate executives, top bureaucrats, weapons researchers and elites of all kinds should be considered at least potential contributors. Neither these nor any other group should be relegated to the status of enemy.

For any social movement, the choice of which types of people to try to mobilise is a strategic decision. By potentially appealing to all groups, the task of building support is made more difficult. On the other hand, it is much harder to discredit a movement which is not tied to particular sections of the community for its support.

It is vitally important to distinguish between people and social structures. It is the structures which need to be changed, and if anything is the 'enemy' it is these structures, not the people in them. In moving towards a world without war, people will need to change too. But this is not promoted by labelling any types of people, whether generals, presidents or bomb designers, as enemies.

Blaming the 'enemy' and not distinguishing between people and structures is very common. Proponents of military defence look benignly on their own government's military preparations while pointing the finger at the preparations by the 'enemy.' Many Marxists see the capitalist class as the 'enemy.' Many members of peace movements also see the world as polarised and look upon the military and political establishments in their own countries as the 'enemy.' In each of these cases, salvation is perceived to come from only a section of the population: from one's own government's military establishment, from the proletariat and its intellectual leaders, or from antiwar activists and other concerned citizens.

Even though all kinds of people can be made welcome as part of a social movement, some types of people will be poorly represented, such as state bureaucrats or military officers who would jeopardise their careers by participating overtly in social protest. Others whose social locations make social activism more feasible, such as students, are likely to be over-represented.

Openness to all types of people in a social movement does not mean an 'open door' policy is required in every movement group. Some groups by their nature will be limited in their variety of members, such as groups formed from members of trade unions or professional associations. Others may explicitly specify exclusiveness, such as separatist feminist groups. Yet all can participate in an antiwar movement if links are maintained between groups and also with individual activists who are not group members.


One desirable goal for a world without war is a concern for truth: open and widespread involvement in attempts to understand social realities. If this goal is to be part of the methods to attain it, then antiwar activists need to be open about and come to grips with truths about war which may be unpleasant. For example:

In my opinion, rather than denying such statements out of hand, it is far better to investigate the subject and come to grips with any apparently unpleasant conclusions that arise. A social movement may delude itself, and even delude many others, but this is not a solid basis for building strategies for removing the structures that underlie war.

Principles are important

Underlying the foregoing presentation of principles is another principle, or rather a meta-principle: principles are important. Social movements can and do operate on day-to-day pragmatism, without any constant principles. But without clear, open and widely understood principles, social movements are much more vulnerable to manipulation, cooption or repression by governments, by opportunistic sectarian groups, or by their own leaders. Principles need not be fixed and inviolate. They can be the subject of careful study and heated debate.

Decisions about principles are often among the easier decisions made by social movements. The hard part is deciding on what they mean in practice. Is our group doing enough to share tasks and leadership skills? How does our planned rally fit into a long-term strategy? What should we say about the role of civil defence in saving lives? Principles by themselves do not provide answers to such questions, but they are valuable in providing a general framework for working out solutions.

I turn in the next several chapters to some areas which I think are important for building campaigns to strike at the roots of war: social defence, peace conversion, and self-management. While I think these areas are important, this selection is not meant to seem exclusive. Other campaign focusses are also vital, and it is likely that many significant and potent campaigns in the future will be built around ideas that are unknown today.

In discussing social defence, peace conversion and self-management, I assume the continuation of most of the standard methods that social action groups use in trying to build a mass movement, including self-education, canvassing for support, writing letters, holding public meetings and protests, organising in a variety of constituencies, and maintaining movement networks and communication channels. In short, this is grassroots organising.

Also I assume that social action groups will use many of the available methods for increasing participation, commitment and solidarity. This includes methods for consensus decision-making, participative meeting procedures, overcoming internal sexism and racism, discussion and mutual learning rather than competition, and sharing of skills and tasks.

Methods for grassroots organising and for promoting egalitarian group dynamics are not obvious or simple to carry out. But there are some good writings on how to go about doing these things, and many activists have considerable practical experience in these areas. In my opinion the skills of grassroots organising and egalitarian group dynamics are an essential basis for antiwar strategies. But rather than discuss them here, my focus is on some general areas for building campaigns, towards which these skills can be mobilised to confront the roots of war.