Social defence

from Brian Martin, Uprooting War (London: Freedom Press, 1984); this is the revised 1990 version.
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The standard, often repeated goal of most peace movements is disarmament: getting rid of weapons and armies. Yet the call for disarmament as a demand is severely flawed. The flaw can be presented in the form of a question: "Without military defence, what can we do against armed aggression?"

In some cases, it can be argued that aspects of military defence are totally ineffective or counterproductive, as in the case of a government which acquires strategic military installations and whose population thereby becomes a nuclear target. But in most cases, military forces do provide a defence against military attack, however undesirable the other effects of military forces are for a society.

What is needed is an alternative to military defence. Disarmament by itself is quite inadequate.

Alternatives are almost always of vital importance in the efforts of social movements. For example, opponents of nuclear power have been met time and time again with the claim that nuclear power is essential, and that without it people will freeze and starve in the dark. This sort of pro-nuclear fear-mongering has little logical basis, but it influences quite a few people. An effective response is the elaboration of an alternative energy strategy based on energy efficiency, use of renewable energy sources, and changes in current social practices such as planned obsolescence which institutionalise unnecessary energy use. This alternative provides a powerful basis for arguing the case against nuclear power, and it also provides a basis for organising people to act themselves to bring about the alternative energy future.

The idea of military defence has an amazingly powerful grip on most people's thinking about war. The possibility that there could be an alternative is not even imagined. This is true also for many people in peace movements. Few peace groups build strategies with wider goals than stopping the latest weapon system or removing nuclear weapons. To the question, "If our government disarms and then our country is invaded, what do we do?," many peace activists have no convincing answer.

One alternative to military defence is social defence which, in short, is nonviolent community resistance to aggression. After describing social defence briefly, I will focus on its key characteristics as a part of a strategy for eliminating the roots of war. Then I will discuss ways of promoting social defence as part of a grassroots strategy against war. Finally, I will raise some of the problems and limitations of social defence.

What is social defence?

Social defence is nonviolent community resistance to aggression as an alternative to military defence. It is based on widespread political, economic and social noncooperation in order to oppose military aggression or political repression. It uses methods such as boycotts, refusals to obey, strikes, demonstrations, and setting up of alternative social, political and economic institutions.

Social defence is based on the principle that no regime, whether democracy or military dictatorship, can survive without the passive support or nonresistance of a large fraction of the population. Since social defence relies on resistance by large sections of the population, it can be considered to be the nonviolent equivalent of guerrilla warfare.

A key part of social defence is an attempt to win over soldiers and civilians in the aggressor country. The appeal to them is bolstered by the broad base of support required for social defence, by its nonviolence, and by the justice of its cause. The methods of social defence aim to promote disunity and to weaken morale in the aggressing forces and country.

Social defence is not automatically successful, just as military defence is not automatically successful. Its effectiveness can be improved by planning and practice in advance. Although social defence is based entirely on nonviolent methods, violence and suffering caused by the aggressors are still likely. Social defence is not an easy alternative.

The methods of social defence can be divided into three types, following Gene Sharp's classification: symbolic actions; noncooperation; and intervention and alternative institutions.

Symbolic actions include:

Noncooperation includes:

Intervention and alternative institutions include:

There are several historical examples which suggest the potential of social defence.

The Kapp Putsch

On 13 March 1920 in Berlin, there was a putsch (military takeover) led by General von Lüttwitz. The extreme right-wing Dr Wolfgang Kapp became Chancellor. Commanders of the German army refused to support the elected government and took no action against the putsch. It was left to the people to take action.

Germany's Weimar republic had been set up after the country's defeat in World War I. The government in 1920 was led by President Friedrich Ebert. In the wake of the coup, the government fled from Berlin to Stuttgart, from which it encouraged resistance by noncooperation.

When the Kappists took over two pro-government newspapers, all Berlin printers went on strike. The Ebert government called for a general strike throughout Germany. Support for the strike was overwhelming, especially in Berlin, and included groups from most political and religious orientations.

Opposition by civil servants was also crucial in opposing the coup. Officials in government bureaucracies refused to head government departments under Kapp.

Noncooperation ran deep. Bank officials refused to honour cheques presented by Kappists unless they were signed by appropriate government officials. But not one such official would sign. Typists were not available to type proclamations for the Kappists.

Kapp foolishly alternated between making concessions and attempting crackdowns, neither of which produced support. As his weakness became more obvious, opposition increased. Some military units and the security police declared their support for the legal government. After only four days, Kapp resigned and fled. With the collapse of the putsch, the Ebert government could once again rely on the loyalty of the army.

Czechoslovakia 1968

In the 1960s, a number of reforms were made in Czechoslovakia which reduced the repressive aspects of state socialist rule. These moves, so-called 'socialism with a human face,' were strongly supported by the Czechoslovak people and government, but bitterly opposed by the Soviet rulers. In August 1968 a Soviet military invasion of Czechoslovakia was launched, with the expectation of quickly installing a pro-Soviet government. There was no military resistance to the invasion. Such resistance probably could only have been sustained a few days anyway.

But the Czechoslovak people, from the political leadership to the workforce, were unified in spontaneous nonviolent resistance to the occupation. This slowed and obstructed the Soviet occupation considerably. The radio network played a crucial role. It convened the Extraordinary Fourteenth Party Congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, called strikes, gave tactical instruction on street confrontations, requested rail workers to slow the transport of Soviet jamming equipment, cautioned against rumours, and counselled nonviolent resistance. Due to the unified civilian resistance, to the lack of a pro-Soviet government and to the demoralisation of Soviet troops, directives were issued from Moscow offering reforms and other concessions .

The Czechoslovak leadership considered these offerings and consequently adopted a more cooperative stance than had the previously unified defence network. Further noncooperative acts were now without official sanction and as the Czechoslovak position weakened, the Soviet forces consolidated the occupation, removing the 'unnecessary' concessions.

Because Soviet economic and political interests in Czechoslovakia were so strong, long-term resistance, either military or nonviolent, would have been very difficult to sustain. The nonviolent Czechoslovak resistance was successful in delaying and frustrating achievement of Soviet aims, with very little loss of life. Furthermore, the resistance and its nonviolence made it clear throughout the world who was the aggressor, and this greatly weakened Soviet influence over communist parties in Western countries. But the reforms achieved in Czechoslovakia prior to August 1968 were lost, partly due to unwise cooperation with Soviet rulers by Czechoslovak leaders.

Algerian Generals' Revolt, 1961

Until 1962, Algeria was a colony of the French government. Beginning in the mid-l950s, an armed independence struggle was waged by Algerian nationalists against French settlers who were supported by French military forces. By 1961, moves were under way by the French government, led by de Gaulle, to grant independence to Algeria.

Leading sections of the French military in Algeria, who were strongly opposed to Algerian independence, staged a coup on 21-22 April 1961 in the city of Algiers. It was rumoured that there would be an invasion of France by the French military leaders in Algeria in order to topple the French government and institute a strict colonialist policy.

The population in France demonstrated its solidarity against such an invasion. French airports were shut down, trade with Algeria ceased and a one-hour strike was held by ten million workers. Dissident elements within the army in Algeria performed noncooperative acts, largely by adopting an attitude of mock incapability.

After four days the coup disintegrated. Large-scale violence was avoided and thus many lives saved. It was largely the force of community resistance which deterred the threatened invasion of France and caused the collapse of the short-lived Algerian Generals' regime.

What about severe repression?

Social defence may sound promising when used against aggressors who must pay attention to 'public opinion,' as in most Western representative democracies. But can it work against really ruthless attackers? Can it work against repressive regimes such as the dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin? This is one of the most often raised and difficult questions concerning the viability of social defence.

If it is assumed that an aggressor is completely ruthless, and is willing to torture and kill unlimited numbers of people with little or no provocation, then most of the methods of social defence are useless or counterproductive. But is this assumption realistic? Robots might be programmed to be completely ruthless aggressors, but short of this can humans behave this way themselves? A few historical examples suggest they seldom can, if sufficient community awareness and resistance can be mustered in the country attacked or in the country from which the aggression comes.

On 1 September 1939, the day of the Nazi military invasion of Poland, Hitler launched a programme of 'euthanasia' for the insane and incurably ill. The programme depended on voluntary participation by doctors. News of the highly secret programme leaked out. Public protests were made by prominent Catholic Church figures, leading to the termination of the programme in 1941.

Effective nonviolent resistance to the Nazi occupiers occurred in the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway during World War Two. For example, the Nazi regime in Norway run by Quisling tried to force the schools to teach Nazi doctrines. The teachers publicly refused, and many were arrested and sent to concentration camps. But they continued to resist, and finally the Quisling government, worried about angering the Norwegian people too much, released the teachers. The schools were never used for Nazi propaganda.

Even in Nazi Germany itself, nonviolent resistance was effective in some cases. In 1943 in Berlin, thousands of non-Jewish wives of Jews arrested by the Gestapo demonstrated outside the detention centre. Eventually the prisoners were released.

More generally, extermination of the Jews and other groups by the Nazis was held back in countries where major groups of the population, and especially influential groups and individuals such as church leaders, refused to collaborate with or to remain silent about arrests and deportations. For example, Hungary was an ally of Germany during the war, but the Hungarian government refused to agree to any deportations of Jews in spite of pressure from the Nazis from 1942 to 1944. Only after the Hungarian government was overturned by the Nazis in 1944 did deportations begin which led to the killing of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz. And even at this late stage the extermination programme was greatly aided by the Hungarian Jewish community leadership, which cooperated with the Nazis and helped organise the Jews for deportation.

It is also significant that the extermination programme was kept secret. If the programme had been widely publicised in Germany and elsewhere, significant forces within Germany and Nazi-occupied countries would have been aroused to oppose the Nazi regime. The important general point is that the success of many Nazi initiatives and programmes, including programmes of racial extermination, depended to a considerable extent on acquiescence or cooperation from large sections of the population.

Indeed, no government in history has been so powerful that it could function without a fair degree of popular consent or acquiescence. In the modern world, unrestrained violence against innocent victims is widely condemned. In this popular antagonism to unjustified repression lies the weakness of open and unrestrained violence and the strength of nonviolent resistance. Not a single one of the many governments which use torture and murder as instruments of state repression openly admits to doing this. The success of Amnesty International in opposing torture by the 'simple' means of openly expressing opposition to it demonstrates this significant point.

These examples and arguments suggest that social defence can be successful against severe repression. But the methods and tactics used need to be specially chosen if repression is harsh. For example, more use can be made of quiet 'mistakes' in carrying out tasks and 'misunderstandings' of orders. When support for the resistance is widespread, more open defiance becomes possible.

Perhaps the most dramatic success yet achieved by nonviolent action against severe repression is the Iranian revolution in 1978-1979. The Shah's regime at that time was one of the most repressive and brutal in the world. The government had an overwhelming military and police arsenal. Torture and killing were used routinely against opponents of the regime, and arrest and torture were used by the state to terrorise the population. The Shah's regime was supported by all major governments, including the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union, the Arab countries and Israel.

The leaders of the main opposition to the Shah, based on Muslim fundamentalism, explicitly opposed the use of violence. Their strategy was based on mass mobilisation including fraternisation with troops. Before the Shah's regime was toppled, something like 40,000 unarmed people were shot dead in the streets during nonviolent demonstrations. One need not be a supporter of post-revolutionary Iran (personally I am deeply opposed to much of what has happened there) to appreciate the enormous power of nonviolent action demonstrated during the revolution. Although the human cost in overthrowing the Shah's regime was enormous, experiences elsewhere suggest that revolution by armed struggle would have resulted in far more deaths.

The keys to successful social defence

Social defence is more than a collection of nonviolent techniques of resistance. It must be based around defending basic principles and around a sound strategy.

The principles to be defended are those which are understood by people as basic to their way of life, and may include democratic institutions, freedom of speech and religion, and economic justice.

The key to a successful nonviolent strategy is maintaining the unity and morale of the resistance. Decisions about demonstrations, strikes and other actions should be made with careful consideration of their effects on unity and morale.

Success also depends on persistence. Nonviolent resistance is not guarantied to succeed quickly, any more than violent resistance is. In a long struggle, tenacity is vital.

Finally, training in the use of nonviolent methods is important, just as it is with violent methods. Most historical uses of nonviolent resistance have been spontaneous, as in the cases of the Kapp Putsch, Czechoslovakia 1968 and the Algerian Generals' Revolt. With thorough preparation, the chance of success is increased. People can learn about what to do and train in the use of methods and principles of nonviolent action.

In summary:

Characteristics of social defence

Social defence is not just an alternative to military defence. Many of the characteristics which make it effective are ideally suited for undermining the roots of war.


By necessity, successful social defence must be based on wide participation. It cannot depend exclusively on leaders or professionals. Therefore social defence as a mode of community organisation is contrary to and subversive of the bureaucratic, military and professional modes of social organisation which are important roots of modern war.

One of the most ingrained ideas about defence is that it is something that is done by someone else, namely military professionals. Personal involvement has been reduced further and further as technology and bureaucracy increasingly dominate the organisation of war. Social defence puts responsibility for defence on every individual, and reasserts the importance of making a personal contribution.

By the same token, neither social defence nor a nonviolent society can be built with compulsory means. State conscription for social defence is virtually a contradiction in terms. To be effective, social defence must be based on people voluntarily defending what they consider important in society.

Community against the state

Social defence, as its name indicates, is defence of the social fabric. It requires community interaction and coordination. Organising for social defence thus both builds on and provides for a strengthening of community networks and solidarity, and helps counter the weakness and isolation that individuals feel when confronted alone by massive organisational forces.

Since social defence is founded on common community values and solidarity, it potentially provides a countervailing power to the state. The state is a key root of war, being based on a monopoly on what is claimed to be the legitimate use of violence, and is intimately linked with military forces. Social defence is subversive of the state system and the associated war system to the extent that it puts the power of resistance in the hands of local communities and withdraws power from the professional military forces of the state.

It is clear from the methods of social defence and from historical examples that nonviolent community resistance can be used not only against foreign invaders but also against military coups and authoritarian regimes. The resistance to the Kapp Putsch and to the Algerian Generals' Revolt are two excellent examples. Social defence thus provides an answer to the question, "Who guards the guardians?" One of the most severe but seldom discussed problems with military forces is their potential and historically frequent use against their own citizens. Social defence, as a grassroots alternative, provides an answer to this threat.

Nonviolent struggle

The nonviolence of social defence has several important justifications and consequences. First, it reduces suffering. Not only is massive destruction and killing unsuited for overcoming social defence, but it is difficult for an aggressor to gain support for large scale and indiscriminate violence against a nonviolent resistance.

One of the justifications for oppressive social structures is that any attempt to change them would cause disproportionate violence and suffering. Many proposals to restrain war, such as cease-fires, negotiated settlements and mutual disarmament, are doomed to failure because they leave intact the status quo with all its attendant injustices. Many people simply do not want 'peace' if it means continued exploitation or injustice.

The methods of social defence allow passionate social struggle to continue without requiring grassroots activists to use organised violence and widespread killing. Nonviolent methods keep the social costs of social change to a much lower level than does the use of violence. More than this, experience in preparing for social defence provides knowledge, tools and an organisational basis for other social movements, such as campaigns against sexism, racism and exploitation of workers. These campaigns confront many of the same structures that underlie war. Social defence thus can both provide support to and receive support from other nonviolent movements for social transformation of the structures that promote sexism, racism, exploitation of workers, and war.

Social attack

Social defence can only be successful to the extent that people wish to defend a social system against an aggressor. In a dictatorship, the introduction of social defence would never be supported by elites since the methods of nonviolent resistance could be used against the rulers themselves. Social defence thus is a tool which is easy to use for the preservation of equality and freedom but hard to use to prop up privilege and repressive power. Indeed, the ideas of social defence are themselves quite subversive when circulated among the people in a repressive regime.

This feature of social defence provides one of the key methods of nonviolent deterrence and resistance: communicating with the people in an aggressor country, especially when those people are misled or oppressed themselves. Letters, radio and personal contact with the people in an aggressor country can be used to explain the nonviolent resistance and the justice of the defenders' cause. Such contact is potentially subversive of authoritarian regimes.

Such contact can also be used in the absence of overt aggression. The enterprise of promoting nonviolent resistance to repressive regimes elsewhere can be called social attack or, alternatively, nonviolent liberation. Symbolic actions, noncooperation, boycotts, intervention and alternative institutions can be used in an offensive as well as a defensive way against a foreign regime, both to directly challenge the regime's power and to encourage and support internal opposition. Examples are boycotts of the regime's goods, protests by visitors to the country, and broadcasting messages by radio. Social attack provides one way of confronting dictatorships without the automatic resort to violence.

Social attack, unlike military attack, is inherently limited in terms of its potential harm. If the cause being promoted is not widely supported, social attack is very unlikely to succeed, and the cost in death and suffering will be relatively small.

Social defence is apparently impotent against nuclear attack, as indeed is military defence. But there are good reasons why governments would refrain from nuclear destruction of a community relying on social defence. Since the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki, no government has yet used nuclear weapons against even a violent or threatening opponent, in good measure due to the expected repercussions on the domestic and world political scene. These repercussions could be greatly extended by mobilising support and sympathy among the population of the potential aggressor country, by making known the methods of social defence to them, and by doing the same elsewhere in the world. A nuclear attack against a nonviolent community in these circumstances could help undermine the aggressor regime.

One advantage of preparing for social attack is that many people can see the urgency of intervening nonviolently in crisis areas or situations, such as Northern Ireland or El Salvador. The international peace brigades (groups trained in nonviolent techniques for intervening in international conflicts as third parties) rely on this sense of urgency. Mobilisation towards this sort of international nonviolent intervention can then provide skills and perspectives for social defence at home.


Social defence has a greater chance of success if a community is self-reliant in being able to use its own skills and resources to exist and thrive. Communities which are self-reliant in energy and resources, food, education, health and transport, are better able to resist political and economic pressure from the outside. Indeed, social defence is based on community self-reliance in opposing organised aggression.

Community self-reliance in many areas provides the basis for alternatives to bureaucracies, large corporations and professional services, and thus provides a basis for alternatives to the structures underlying war. Social defence can both promote and gain strength from other initiatives towards community self-reliance.

Who will lead the way to social defence?

The general idea of nonviolent resistance as an alternative to military defence was raised by several writers closely familiar with the nonviolent campaigns led by Gandhi in India in the 1920s and 1930s. The first fully articulated exposition of the idea was by Stephen King-Hall, an author and retired British naval officer, with the publication of his book Defence in the Nuclear Age in 1958. Since then there have been a number of excellent treatments and developments of the idea of social defence, by authors including Johan Galtung, Theodor Ebert, Adam Roberts, Gene Sharp, Anders Boserup and Andrew Mack.

Most of this intellectual work has been concerned with how social defence would work, relevant historical experiences, the strengths and limitations of social defence, social and political conditions conducive to social defence, and why social defence would be an improvement over military defence. There has been relatively little attention to the problem of how to make social defence part of a strategy to eliminate war. Furthermore, in most of the writing on social defence, there is an implicit strategy for promoting it: convince state elites of the merit of social defence. In other words, social defence has been seen as something that will be introduced through decisions by elites made at level of the state, perhaps with the pressure of public opinion to push the change along.

One reason for the adoption of this approach has been the important role that intellectuals, academics in particular, have played in developing the idea of social defence. Professional intellectuals tend to look for change from the top.

In the case of the campaigns led by Gandhi and his associates in South Africa and India, the practice of nonviolent action developed in close conjunction with the theory. In many ways, political practice led or inspired the associated ideas. But with social defence so far, practical development has not begun and theoretical development is forced to rely on 'unplanned experiments' such as the 1968 Czechoslovak resistance.

A few governments have supported studies of social defence. It is significant that it has been the more socially progressive and least repressive governments, in particular the governments of Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, that have shown any interest at all. But even in these cases no substantial moves have been made to adopt social defence.

This is not surprising. As I argued in Chapter 1, it is futile to expect challenges to the roots of war to occur solely as a result of intellectual persuasion of elites or even from public pressure on elites. Since social defence challenges the state monopoly on violence and social control, it is hardly conceivable that any government or military would introduce it voluntarily.

The focus on encouraging the introduction of social defence at the state level has had other side effects. It has meant that many of the characteristics of social defence which are most crucial in challenging the roots of war have been watered down or compromised.

Rather than an emphasis on the more radical implications of social defence, there has been a strong emphasis on the pragmatic value of social defence, 'pragmatic' as seen from the point of view of elites. Gene Sharp in particular argues for social defence as a 'functional substitute for military defence' and as a realistic, workable alternative mostly within the context of Western societies as they presently exist. I have no quibbles with pragmatism, and indeed I think the effectiveness of social defence is one of the most important grounds for arguing for it. But I think that the more far-reaching characteristics of social defence may be lost in the emphasis on pragmatism and appealing to elites.

Another problem with academic studies of social defence is that research tends to become too separated from practical problems. Specialisation, detailed documentation and scholarly critiques all have their place, but their place will become irrelevant to practical problems unless a strong connection is maintained between research and social action. After all, this sort of connection is what makes military research such a thriving and serious business. Social defence research institutes would be a mixed blessing. Far better than more research by itself would be an interaction between research and social action on social defence.

Whatever reservations may be held about the key figures who have set out and developed the idea of social defence, their contributions in raising and keeping the idea alive have been immense. Peace movements have been slow to take notice. In English-speaking countries the concept of social defence has been virtually unheard of until recently. In the peace movements in several countries in Western Europe, the idea of social defence has considerable currency. But even there, so I am told, social defence is used more as an argument than as a basis for organising communities.

If social defence is unlikely to be promoted by elites, then the obvious place to turn is to the other end of the political spectrum: the grassroots. Here are some of the initiatives which have been taken by groups around the world promoting social defence.

Needless to say, there are many other things which can be done.

Social defence can be an organisational focus for local communities, factory workers, office workers, feminists, gays and many others. Preparing themselves to resist aggression gives such groups something to do by themselves and for themselves, without appealing to elites or depending on top level agreements or negotiations. People in their own local group or movement can do something that provides the basis for an alternative to military defence and which at the same time provides skills for resisting political repression. Social defence campaigns can tie in nicely with campaigns for protection from crime, rape or police harassment, for promoting workers' self-management, and many other campaigns.

If a social problem exists, it is important to be able to formulate an alternative. If a desirable alternative can be formulated, one way to help bring it about is to turn it into a campaign or a movement. If nuclear power is a problem, local energy self-reliance can be more than just an argument: it can also be a focus for organising people to take action. If centralised decision-making is a problem, participatory democracy and consensus decision-making are not just desirable goals but also principles for groups of people organising to challenge the centralised decision-making. One great advantage of turning an alternative into an organising focus is that the discrepancy between means and ends is minimised. Social defence is at least as important as a focus for campaigning as it is as a goal to be reached.

Problems and limitations

Social defence is not an automatic or easy road to a world without war. There are great difficulties facing a switch to social defence. Just raising the idea with friends is a good way to provide a taste of the possible range of objections, reservations and antagonisms facing acceptance of social defence even by those without a vested interest in military defence. Here I will discuss only some of the problems and limitations of social defence as part of a strategy to transform the roots of war, emphasising some of the sticky long-term issues rather than the standard objections.

When violence erupts

Nonviolent action is much more effective before a conflict reaches the stage of violence. Once violence erupts, it may seem too late for a nonviolent response. Just like military defence, social defence is a better solution when war is prevented rather than being fought. It is not surprising that some of the most persistent objections to social defence are along the lines "How could it possibly work against Hitler or Stalin?" Nonviolent resistance did have some successes against the Nazis. And it should be remembered that military means only succeeded against Nazi military might after one of the greatest mobilisations of human resources in history, and that military approaches did little to prevent or restrain Stalinism. It remains to be seen what social defence could do against such repressive regimes. But while comparisons are all very well, the problem remains that as a prescription for the problem of war, social defence is better as prevention than cure. One implication for antiwar strategy is to emphasise nonviolent deterrence and preparation for social defence, and not to promise short-term successes before social defence is widely adopted.


In studying historical examples of nonviolent action and in preparing for social defence, there may be a tendency to study and prepare only for scenarios suited for the success of social defence. This is similar to the problem faced by military planners who are accused of preparing for the previous war. Social defence will be less attractive superficially, but tougher and more resilient, if it is developed with an eye towards the most difficult and challenging situations.

What about El Salvador?

One of the most commonly raised problems with social defence is often voiced through the question "What about El Salvador?" or "What about Afghanistan?" or "What about East Timor?" or "What about Palestine?" Such questions refer to situations in severely repressive regimes in which an opposition movement is relying upon violent means. Usually it is assumed that the opposition movement is on the side of greatest justice or freedom. For example, violent liberation movements usually aim to remove exploitation by landlords and foreign capitalists.

The question "What about El Salvador?" does not explicitly raise any problems about social defence. But implicit in the question are several important reservations and criticisms about social defence.

First, El Salvador and other places like it are situations in which people are undergoing severe repression, often including murder, torture and other forms of state terrorism. As noted before, the problem of severe repression is one of the most commonly raised reservations about the effectiveness of social defence.

Second, in El Salvador and other places like it, resistance is being mounted against state repression. Social defence is often confused with passive resistance and so may seem at variance with actually occurring resistance.

Third, and most significantly, an important part of the resistance in El Salvador is violent. Social defence is nonviolent. There seems to be a conflict between supporting violent liberation struggles and supporting social defence. In particular, those who support violent liberation struggles may assume that support for social defence is an implicit criticism of liberation struggles. Is this the case?

The differences between social defence and liberation struggles are not as great as might be thought at first. There is actually a considerable overlap in methods. Liberation struggles using violent methods almost always use nonviolent methods as well, ranging from ostracism, emigration, strikes, boycotts and other forms of noncooperation. Guerrilla warfare relies on mobilising people at the grassroots, ensuring widespread participation in resistance, encouraging defections of enemy soldiers, implementing measures of social justice such as land redistribution, and building up alternative and more participatory social systems. All of these methods are quite in line with a grassroots strategy against war and would be important components in a social defence campaign. It is not for nothing that social defence is called the nonviolent analogue of guerrilla warfare. Where the approaches diverge is in the use of armed force by liberation movements.

Another consideration is the importance of resisting rather than not resisting. Gandhi and others have said that it is better to resist oppression violently than not to resist at all. Social defence advocates need to make it quite clear that they are not counselling nonresistance.

Nevertheless, there is still a degree of inevitable tension between social defence and violent liberation movements. Social defence presents the basis for an alternative strategy for liberation: nonviolent liberation. To raise this possibility explicitly or implicitly is to raise doubts about the moral superiority of violent liberation movements. This is unacceptable to some of those who support those movements. They think that the methods adopted by these movements should not be questioned by outsiders, because of the justice of their cause, because of the suffering of the people for whom liberation is sought, and because of the sacrifices made in the liberation struggle. In their view, solidarity and unanimity are required, and anything that threatens this is undesirable or dangerous.

I sympathise with the sentiments behind this line of thought, but disagree with the conclusion. Uncritical support for any movement is undesirable, in my opinion. Sympathetic criticism can be useful in eliminating poor tactics, broadening support, and considering new directions. Why should support for a courageous and difficult liberation struggle have to be unqualified and uncritical?

It should not be forgotten that violent liberation movements can be and have been responsible for murder, torture, exploitation, sexism, racism and elitism. In many cases this can be explained (if not justified) by the repressive and regressive frameworks in which social movements, no matter how progressive their goals, remain locked. The question is whether liberation movements should be openly criticised for any of their activities, since this often plays into the hands of the counterrevolutionary forces. I would agree that it is hard to know where to strike a balance in making criticisms. But I would argue that to avoid criticism altogether is to weaken the potential for true liberation in the long term and often the short term.

Raising the possibility of social defence is not necessarily to criticise violent liberation movements. It should be seen as another option, for careful and open consideration. Raising an option does not force people to adopt it, or necessarily imply criticism of them if they do not adopt it.

On the other hand, advocates of social defence need to be careful not to condemn violent liberation struggles out of hand. Social defence needs to be developed, prepared for, implemented, tested and shown to be effective in helping oppose oppression and repression. Until then, it is only to be expected that other methods, including violent methods, will be used.


Another criticism is that a successful social defence campaign could have a destabilising effect on the usual military 'balance.' For example, a community that developed social defence preparations and threatened to reduce its military defence might thereby invite attack. Of course, this accusation will be laid against social defence by those who oppose it. Attack against a region switching to social defence may in reality become more likely because of the perceived social and political dangers to state and military elites.

One good way to help prevent such attacks would be to try to involve people from all sections of society in moving towards social defence, including people in the military, the police and the government. This would help reduce the threat from antagonistic groups within a society. To help reduce the threat from without, considerable attention would need to be devoted to communicating information about social defence to potential antagonists and to the general population in the areas hosting the antagonistic forces, and also building up capacities for social attack. The threat from without would be reduced to the extent that social defence is developed in several regions simultaneously, rather than being an isolated phenomenon.

Opposition and cooption

Energy efficiency and small-scale decentralised use of renewable energy sources provide a 'soft energy path' alternative to large-scale centralised energy production. The powerful corporate and government interests which promote the latter 'hard energy path' can pursue one or both of two methods of dealing with the 'soft path' initiatives: opposition or cooption.

Opposition means pressing ahead with large-scale use of nuclear power, coal and petroleum fuels, overriding citizen protests, and squashing attempts to promote a soft energy path. Cooption has taken the form of allowing or encouraging some moves towards energy efficiency and renewable energy utilisation at an individual or local level, funding of renewable energy technology research and development (usually the more technologically sophisticated forms) by corporations and governments, and maintaining the infrastructure of large-scale energy production and use. Cooption thus involves accepting some of the technological features of the alternative, such as increasing energy conservation in vehicles and buildings. At the same time, the structural basis for large-scale centralised control of energy is maintained: road transport and conventional urban planning, military expenditure, planned obsolescence, and centralised production for mass consumption of individualised commodities (including solar hot water heaters and energy-efficient refrigerators). The result of cooption of the soft energy path is a combination of soft energy and hard politics.

Strategies of opposition and cooption can be found in the responses by government and industry to many social movements, including the labour, feminist and environmental movements.

Campaigns for social defence are likely to be ignored or treated benignly when they are small. Once they reach a significant size organisationally or ideologically, opposition or cooption or both are likely to be encountered. Opposition is the less difficult problem from a strategic point of view: it is easy to recognise, and the techniques of social defence themselves are ideally designed for dealing with it. Coopting responses are likely to appear on the surface to be tolerance or support. They might include:

These possibilities are not necessarily undesirable in themselves. The danger in them is that the key characteristics of social defence for challenging the roots of war may be compromised or obscured, including widespread participation, community rather than just national defence, and links with social movements. Both the long-term overcoming of the problem of war and the long-term effectiveness of social defence are jeopardised if these coopting responses are accepted as a substitute for a more radical programme of social defence.

Left groups

Marxist groups in the West which still have some long-term aspiration for seizing state power are likely to be among those groups most hostile to social defence. This is because such militant groups want to retain the legitimacy of using violence to capture state power. This would cause no special problem except that these groups often are heavily involved in Western peace and other social movements, especially when the demands of these movements begin to develop mass support. Most Western Marxist groups accept nonviolence as a tactical measure, but are not attracted to movements premised on nonviolence.

One danger is that militant left groups might attempt to manipulate the mass mobilisation made possible by a successful programme of social defence or nonviolent action, especially if they could convince people with the claim that while nonviolent methods had taken a campaign to a certain point, "now it is necessary to use violence to go further." To help prevent these and other possible problems, a broad understanding of the principles of nonviolent action is vital to prevent manipulation of social movements from the top. Also important is dialogue with members of militant left groups, both to communicate the principles of social defence to them and also to learn from their perspectives.

Decentralisation and guerrilla warfare

The use of violent methods to promote revolutionary goals in modern urbanised and industrialised societies is a futile exercise, as argued by Martin Oppenheimer in The Urban Guerilla and shown by the counterproductive terrorism of the Red Brigades and the Irish Republican Army. In a society with a high division of labour, centralised production and powerful military and police forces, there is no secure geographical or occupational base for a people's movement to stage a violent revolution. Successes of revolutionary guerrilla warfare have usually occurred when there is a considerable degree of local self-sufficiency due to lack of industrialisation (as in the cases of the victories by Chinese and Vietnamese communists) or favourable geographical conditions (as in the Yugoslavian resistance to the Nazis).

The conditions in modern industrialised societies suggest that social defence is likely to be a more effective alternative to conventional military defence than is guerrilla warfare. But if, in moving towards community-based social defence, changes towards decentralisation and self-sufficiency in economic and political organisation were made, this could also lay the basis for more effective guerrilla warfare! Would this necessarily be a bad thing?


A campaign for social defence resolutely based on grassroots organising and involvement may avoid problems of cooption only to fall into another trap: the development of a closed shop of social defence planners. The danger is that social defence organisers may think that they and the community they are organising have all the answers, and not approach potentially hostile groups for criticism and exchange of ideas.

People are more likely to commit themselves to defend a community to the extent that it is worth defending: to the extent that it is just, equal, free, prosperous, secure and stimulating to live in. Such a society is unlikely to be dogmatic and closed to contrary ideas. Similarly, campaigners for social defence need to encourage openness to the ideas of others about social defence. This means talking to soldiers, police, politicians and corporate executives, among others.

Especially in early stages of promoting social defence, when aims and methods are being clarified, there is much to be gained by contact with people with greatly different views and values. There is potential strength in being vulnerable to other ideas.

There is another important reason for promoters of social defence to keep channels of information open with elites and potentially hostile groups. Roland Vogt pointed out to me that one reason the Czechoslovak government leaders in 1968 did not put up a stronger resistance to Soviet government demands is that they did not realise the strength and impact of the nonviolent resistance happening in their own country: it seemed to them that there was no real resistance. Even if few elites will help promote social defence, it is valuable for them to be aware of its potential and of community preparedness to undertake it. This awareness can help them react in a more knowledgeable way in crises. This could be either to support grassroots nonviolent resistance against external aggressors or to restrain attacks against nonviolent resisters at home.

Confrontation versus cooperation

Social defence by its nature is confrontationist. It assumes the existence of social conflict and provides nonviolent rather than violent means for dealing with it. In many cases confrontation cannot be avoided and social defence is entirely appropriate. But a confrontationist method sometimes can obscure the possibility of cooperative resolutions. In the hypothetical long term when social defence has superseded military defence throughout the world, will structures for waging social defence pose an obstacle towards moving further towards a cooperative future? To the extent that social defence is fully participatory and linked with other social movements, it should be more of a help than a hindrance towards creating a cooperative society.

The wrong goal

Social defence is not a 'neutral tool': to be effective it both requires and fosters equality, participation and community solidarity. Nonetheless, the use of social defence, social attack and, more generally, nonviolent action, does not automatically make a group's cause morally superior. Social defence can be used to defend 'the wrong goal.' The aims of the Nazis would not become more acceptable if they were promoted only by nonviolent methods. Moral fervour may be made more effective when backed by nonviolent methods, but it may also expand out of touch with original constructive goals. To be sure, nonviolence is usually better than violence when pursuing the wrong goal, since harm and suffering are minimised. But nonviolence is not an automatic road to truth.

A related problem is knowing what balance to strike between social defence as a pragmatic protection of the status quo and as part of a programme for challenging oppression and injustice. In using nonviolent methods against the Kapp Putsch and the Algerian Generals' Revolt, people were united in defending political systems against a turn for the worse: military takeover. This is an important aspect of social defence, one which potentially can mobilise wide sections of the population. On the other hand, when social defence is linked with social movements such as feminism, environmentalism and workers' control, activists and members of those movements may be mobilised but some support for social defence as defence of the status quo may be lost. What is the best way to reconcile these two roles of social defence?

Transition problems

How will mass expansion of preparedness to use social defence occur? What happens after the idea becomes popular? How is social defence to be institutionalised? How are decisions to be made in a large social defence network? What are military workers to do? (Be unemployed? Be social defence activists? Be trained in social defence as part of military training?) Who will handle negotiations with government and military elites in struggles to switch from military to social defence? These and other unanswered questions show that the development of social defence is at a stage where much more analysis, discussion and practical experience is needed.