Revolutionary social defence

Published in Bulletin of Peace Proposals, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1991, pp. 97-105. A revised and abridged version of this article appeared as chapter 7 in Social Defence, Social Change (London: Freedom Press, 1993), pp. 69-79.
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Brian Martin

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1. Background

Since the 1950s, a considerable literature has developed on the use of non-violent methods by the general population as a means for opposing an invasion or coup.[1] This alternative or supplement to military defence goes by many names, including social defence, non-violent defence, civilian defence and civilian-based defence.

Most writings on social defence have dealt with methods of non-violent resistance, strengths and weaknesses of non-violence, relevant historical examples, and the most appropriate sort of society for social defence. There has been relatively little on how to go about promoting social defence in present-day society. For this it is more fruitful to look at the efforts of those who have actually promoted social defence. Two distinct approaches stand out.[2] Although they are not mutually exclusive, the distinction between these two approaches is useful here to motivate the discussion. Their characteristics are given in Table I.


Table I. Two Approaches to the Promotion of Social Defence.

  Elite reform Grassroots action
Implementation Governments Mass action
Key target audience Government and military officials Social movements
Domain of defence National Local, national, transnational
Social context Social defence as a functional alternative to military defence Social defence as part of wider social change
Key promoters Academic researchers Activists
Argument, justification Rational superiority of social defence to military defence Commitment to non-violence, participation, social justice


The first approach - exemplified by the work of Gene Sharp - is based on convincing key decision-makers in government of the superiority of civilian-based defence. The second approach is based on grass-roots action, usually linked to social movements. Many who adopt this latter approach are activists in groups not formally dealing with social defence, such as environmental groups, although there are also some groups specifically promoting social defence.[3]

So far, no method of promoting social defence[4] has had any notable successes. Only a few governments have shown interest in social defence, and none has taken major steps toward replacing its military forces by non-violent popular resistance. (There have been inquiries in, for instance, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, but with little continuing consequence.) Similarly, no substate community has converted itself to non-violent resistance in a way that poses a comprehensive alternative to military defence. Given this lack of obvious successes, the discussion of prospects for social defence relies heavily on theoretical arguments, analogies and interpretation of historical struggles, most of which were not consciously linked to non-violence.

Here I examine the two approaches to promoting social defence by looking at the problem of formulating a convincing scenario. My assessment is that no scenario has been presented which is persuasive to advocates using the other approach.

The main problem with the reformist approach, according to its critics, is that it does not deal with social structures, in particular with the vested interests in present military systems. It can be argued that most arrangements in society are based not on the logic of human needs (such as security) but on the interests of social groups in power, wealth and status. According to this view, the present military systems are in place because they serve the interests of national elites, military elites, corporate elites, etc. Some government leaders may have the best of intentions to change the system, but they are unable to overcome powerful commitments to military systems that keep them in power. For example, in capitalist societies, the military is the ultimate defender of the ownership of private property, and is used in crisis situations to break strikes and smash militant workers' movements. A defence system based on popular non-violent action would be without the usual military sanction for property and bureaucratic privilege (among other systems of inequality). Any scenario, such as the social defence reform scenario, that ignores this issue is unrealistic.

This argument against social defence via convincing elites is very similar to the critique of disarmament negotiations. Analysts such as Johan Galtung and Alva Myrdal have argued that government disarmament negotiations are basically a facade, giving the illusion of possible progress while leaving the underlying war structures untroubled.[5] The same could easily apply to social defence negotiations, should things ever get that far. The advocates of the reform approach have not explained how they expect to avoid this fate.

The grass-roots action approach to social defence suffers a different problem in terms of scenarios. There are many examples of dramatic popular non-violent action which seem to hold the potential for a power equivalent to the military. But, according to critics, the results of such action are often pitifully weak or disastrously misguided.

A commonly cited historical example is the Czechoslovak resistance to the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion. Although initially highly successful, the resistance was eventually crushed, and Czechoslovakia was to become one of the more repressive Eastern bloc states for two decades afterwards.[6]

The struggle for the independence of India, led by Gandhi, is one of the classic stories of non-violent action. Yet some critics would say that India has not been decidedly less violent or a better place than many countries that obtained independence by other means. There was massive communal violence after the partition of India in 1947; the government of India developed nuclear weapons; the emergency of 1975-77 was a massive blot on the democratic process; the West Pakistan military assault on Bangladesh is one of the century's major genocides; poverty, inequality and corruption remain extremely serious problems. Gandhi's positive programme, though supported by many resolute activists, has made little headway in the face of Western-style development. Critics would conclude that the legacy of non-violent struggle in India is not the most encouraging.[7]

The Iranian revolution of 1978-79 can be counted as one of the great triumphs of non-violent action against repression. The Shah's regime boasted a massive military force, was defended internally by brutal secret police and was supported externally by all the major powers. This regime was toppled by concerted non-violent action in one of the true revolutions of modern times. But the legacy of this non-violent struggle was exceedingly short: the theocratic regime that replaced the Shah was extremely repressive.

In the Philippines, the 1986 popular outpouring against the military regime of Ferdinand Marcos and in defence of Cory Aquino fulfilled one of the visions of the supporters of non-violence: the triumph of non-violent mass protest against threatened military attack. Yet the Aquino government has not been a great improvement over Marcos: the war against 'rebels' continues; landowners are defended against the poor; corruption persists.

In each of these cases, the message concerning popular non-violent struggle has been mixed. Non-violent action seemed to be successful in the short-term, immediate struggle, but the subsequent history provides little indication of any permanent success. In none of these cases has non-violent action become the standard means of struggle, nor has political development towards a non-violent society ever seemed more than a distant prospect. (It is relevant here that only in India was non-violent action a conscious part of a long-term programme to change society. In the other cases, non-violent action was used tactically and hence offered little prospect for institutional change.)

The 1989 events in Eastern Europe involved far-reaching changes in political systems brought about, for the most part, without violence. These events give great hope to the supporters of peace and freedom, but they do not fundamentally affect the argument here. Although non-violent struggle certainly has played a crucial role in the Eastern European events, it has not been waged against either a foreign military aggressor or a military government (except in Poland), the classic cases for evaluating the potential of non-violent action for the purposes of social defence. In addition, further research is required to determine the exact role of non-violent action in the political changes.

The key point is that in most of the countries, the military did not intervene overtly to oppose democratization. (The complex events in some countries, such as Romania and Yugoslavia, may qualify these comments.) Therefore these experiences cannot be cited as examples of non-violent struggle succeeding, in a lasting fashion, against military opposition. The 1989 events in China reinforce this conclusion.

Furthermore, there have been no moves to eliminate the military in any of the Eastern European countries. In fact, the concept of social defence is far less known there than in the West.

It may be that 1989 signalled the end of the Cold War, but that does not mean it has meant the end of the possibility of mass warfare, any more than 1815 signalled the permanent end of continental warfare in Europe. As welcome and significant as the 1989 events may be, they do not eliminate the problem of war. Therefore the issue of how to promote social defence remains a vital one.

In each of the examples above I have given only a brief sketch. It is not my aim to provide a political critique of non-violent struggle. Rather, my point is that history so far has provided no clearcut example of how a grass-roots challenge to the military, leading to its replacement by social defence, might occur.

2. The Rise of Mass Warfare

To provide the motivation for such a scenario, I turn to a different history: the rise of mass warfare and the modern state system. In this schematic history, my aim is not to provide political, economic or military detail, but rather to highlight some general changes in the nature of warfare which can be used to suggest the possibilities for social defence in the future. The key concepts here are participation, professionalization and specialization.[8]

In feudal Europe, warfare was the preserve of a small minority. The bulk of the population, the peasantry, was rarely involved or indeed even affected by fighting. Armies were professional, usually composed of mercenaries.

The feudal relationship of warfare to society was connected to political and economic arrangements. Most economic production was for local use, and political power was decentralized (though quite unequal). There was no ready means of extracting economic surplus to support large standing armies. Hence the usual procedure was to raise a mercenary army for particular campaigns.

The feudal system was superseded by the modern state system. The military played a key role in this transformation, as it provided the basis for the gradual acquisition of greater power by the crown at the expense of the nobility. To support military expenditures, a larger portion of the economic product had to be extracted. To achieve this, tax collections and bureaucracies to handle them were required. The growth of the military and the state went hand in hand.[9]

A key event in this process was the French Revolution, a revolution that strengthened the state and bureaucracy and incorporated mass support.[10] The Revolution was seriously threatened by the surrounding traditional states, and so in order to avoid being crushed it had to expand. This expansion took a populist, military form: the French revolutionary armies represented the first modern mass mobilization of men for warfare.

The French revolutionary expansion in its turn triggered similar processes of state building in neighbouring countries in order to defend against the French armies. This greatly accelerated the formation of modern states, with their political centralization, bureaucracies for taxation and services, secret police, standing armies and centrally regulated economies.

The era of mass participation in warfare continued into this century, notably in the world wars. Large numbers of young fit men have been directly involved in armed forces. In the era of total warfare, other parts of the population have supported war efforts especially through economic production; they have also been the targets of military attack, as in mass bombing.

Mass participation has been associated with low professionalization. Most soldiers in wars have been volunteers or conscripts. Similarly, there has been a relatively low degree of specialization. The rifle is a mass weapon, readily used by the ordinary soldier.

By contrast, in recent decades there has been a strong trend in industrialized countries towards low-participation, highly technological warfare. Modern weapons systems such as aircraft, submarines and guided missiles are exceedingly complex, and require many more technicians and support personnel than frontline fighters. In the United States, one of the countries where this trend is most advanced, the army is largely made up of professionals, a large proportion of whom are technical specialists.

If the French Revolution symbolizes the rise of mass participation in warfare, challenging the feudal pattern of small and temporary mercenary armies, then the nuclear arms race symbolizes the return to warfare characterized by low participation, high professionalism and high specialization. It is from this starting-point that I turn to a scenario for the introduction of social defence, in analogy with the French revolutionary process.

3. Revolutionary Social Defence

A revolution can be defined as a rapid, basic transformation of key social structures in a society, such as the state and class structures, linked to mass revolts from below.[11] A military coup is not a revolution, since the channels for exercise of political and economic power are unchanged. On the other hand, the French, Russian, Chinese and Iranian revolutions, among others, changed the entire framework of economic relations, as well as political leadership.

The phrase 'revolutionary social defence' has two facets. It refers to the use of social defence in a potentially revolutionary situation, for example to defend a significant change in social relations. It also refers to the intrinsically revolutionary features of social defence itself: a replacement of the military by popular non-violent action implies that the state can no longer rely on a monopoly over the use of 'legitimate' violence. Hence the survival of the state and of social institutions protected by the state, such as private property and bureaucratic privilege, is jeopardized. The introduction of social defence does not require a challenge to and replacement of major social institutions currently backed ultimately by violence, but this is certainly a possibility.

One possible scenario for revolutionary social defence involves the introduction of social defence in a revolutionary situation brought about for other reasons. For example, a radical party is elected to government, and is threatened by a military coup (perhaps supported by a foreign power). Organized non-violent action to defend the government culminates in a conversion to social defence. Alternatively, non-violent methods developed to resist an invasion are used to bring about radical changes in the society itself, including dissolution of the armed forces.

The introduction of full-scale social defence implies complete disarmament of the military. In the reform scenario, this disarmament is a carefully planned operation. In a revolutionary situation, it is far more likely to be people's disarmament,[12] undertaken without sanction by government or military leaders, carried out to stop the use of weapons against the population. In order for such people's disarmament to succeed, it would have to be supported by significant portions of the military forces.[13] It would involve disabling weapons systems, taking over military communication systems and dissolving or superseding military command structures.

The revolutionary changes brought about in this situation are most likely to be in the direction of radical democracy, namely the challenging of systems of unequal power and privilege associated with capitalism, state socialism, bureaucracy, patriarchy and the military itself. Whatever system is brought into being, it must have substantial popular support in order to be defended effectively by social defence.

So far I have assumed that people's disarmament and the introduction of social defence take place in a particular area: a country or substantial region. These developments, both the revolutionary changes and the introduction of social defence, will undoubtedly be perceived as threatening to neighbouring governments and militaries. Thus, as soon as social defence begins to be introduced in a revolutionary situation, it is likely to be threatened by external invasion or serious destabilizing operations. It may be that 'social defence in one country' is inherently infeasible or unstable, just like 'socialism in one country'. If the revolution does not expand, it is likely to be crushed or subverted from within by the supporters of military methods.

Instead of waiting for an invasion in order to use social defence, a more active posture can be taken, which can be called 'social offence'.[14] This is the use of non-violent methods in one country or place to support struggle in another place.[15] In the case of revolutionary social defence, social offence means the active promotion of social defence in other parts of the world, especially where a threat to the revolution might arise.

There are many methods for social offence: radio broadcasts, communication of information by individuals, preparation of information kits on active disarmament, transnational boycotts and strikes. The most crucial aspect of social offence is communications. The revolutionary society would almost certainly be slandered as corrupt and evil by its enemies, in order to justify attacks on it. Communicating the truth about methods and results would be essential.

The ultimate aim in social offence by the revolutionary society would be conversion to social defence in other parts of the world. If this failed, so might the revolution. But if it began to succeed, this could trigger a process of ever-expanding active disarmament, as 'foreign threats' began to dissolve by people's actions.

In this process, there would undoubtedly be many bloody struggles and tragedies, as military and police forces were used to stamp out the revolutionary infection. Massacres might stop progress in some cases - but they could also stimulate people's disarmament in the process of political jiu-jitsu associated with non-violent action.[16] It is even possible to imagine that some regimes might sponsor social defence themselves, in order to pre-empt revolutionary change.

Needless to say, this scenario is schematic. Any actual changes in this direction are likely to be long and drawn out, with surges and regressions over a period of decades. In the process, the results are likely to be far less than ideal. The 'revolutionary societies' will no doubt turn out to be flawed in various ways; new forms of struggle, formally non-violent but still manipulative, will develop to protect power and privilege; catastrophes and 'excesses' will occur. Anything other than such an unstructured progression is wishful thinking. The reform vision of carefully planned conversion to social defence is certainly misleading, although that does not mean that chaos is desirable.

The analogy between the French Revolution and the scenario of revolutionary social defence should be clear. In both cases there is a dramatic increase in participation in social struggle, in armed struggle in the first case and in non-violent struggle in the second case. (Social defence potentially involves a much greater mobilization for struggle, since women, children, the aged and disabled can participate.) In both cases the changes in participation in organized struggle are linked to revolutionary changes in social arrangements. In both cases, expansion of the revolution is the method of defending the revolution. In both cases, the original goals of the revolution may be lost, and new ways of exercising power may develop.

The aim in outlining the scenario of revolutionary social defence is not to foretell the future, but rather to stimulate thinking about strategies in the present. Revolutionary social defence is but one possible development, and as such is worthy of discussion and planning. Therefore, I now turn to the implications of this possibility for action today.

4. Some Implications

1. The key to social defence may be its link with social movements with the potential for revolutionary change in social structure. Most important here are movements which pose a challenge or alternative to military and state power, especially movements for various forms of participatory democracy and workers' control. This category includes anarchist groups, the sarvodaya movement and portions of feminist, peace and environmental movements, and the green movement generally. None of these currently seems to have the potential to bring about change quickly, but appearances can be deceptive. The events in France in 1968 and in Eastern Europe in 1989 suggest the potentialities.

In practice, many social defence activists are also active in a range of social movements. The trouble is that social defence is commonly seen as something to do with unlikely invasions and coups, divorced from day-to-day social struggle. The challenge is to promote social defence in a way that integrates it with society and a broad perspective on security and development, rather than separating it off with a narrow orientation to invasion or defence policy.

Perhaps the initial step is simply to lay the groundwork for the rapid expansion of non-violent action; when a suitable occasion arises, social learning can be extremely rapid. This can be aided if even a small number of committed individuals have prepared information sheets, tried out methods of organization and decision-making, and organized communication channels.

2. In some circumstances, the survival of social defence may depend on the capacity and willingness for undertaking 'social offence', the concerted use of non-violent techniques to undermine potential aggressor regimes. This requires a somewhat different orientation than the usual idea of social defence, which is taken to imply preparing in one's own society to defend against attack from the outside.

Perhaps one reason why social offence has not been prominent in the studies of social defence is an association with military offence. In many circles, military offence is castigated but military defence is considered acceptable; the difficulties in separating these are glossed over. Another reason why social offence has been neglected is that it involves violating the 'sovereignty' of another government; the invocation of the principle of sovereignty has long been a mainstay of governments and peace movements alike, despite inconsistencies in practice. In any case, social offence is much more interventionist than defensive social defence.

Social offence is not greatly different in form from much activity than goes on routinely. Telephone messages, radio broadcasts, visitors, diplomatic relations and commercial transactions are all standard ways of interacting between countries and between groups and individuals within them. Social offence simply puts a different content in the interactions. Like any other interaction, social offence is open to abuse, for example the possibility of cultural imperialism. Nevertheless, it is based on persuasion by non-violent methods, which is quite different from military offence.

In developing the capacity for social offence, communications are crucial. The ability to speak and write foreign languages, to use short-wave radio, to use electronic mail and many other skills become highly important. Also important is knowing which sorts of messages and appeals are the most effective, which groups are potential supporters or opponents, and what organizational forms are most suitable for maintaining communication channels in the face of disruption and surveillance.

3. The introduction of social defence may be accompanied by extensive direct disarmament by popular action. This means disabling everything from guns and tanks to intercontinental ballistic missiles. It does not take much skill to remove bullets from guns or disable computers, but in some cases knowledge and care is required for direct disarmament.

The important point here is that almost no effort has been put into spreading knowledge and skills for direct disarmament. Numerous scientists and engineers have devoted their energies to constructing weapons, but few have developed simple ways for disabling and disposing of them.

One group with relevant skills is radical environmentalists who employ 'monkey-wrenching' to stop activities they consider damaging to the environment; this includes pulling up survey stakes, spiking trees and disabling bulldozers.[17] Monkey-wrenching, though, assumes minority action and secrecy in the face of opposition from governments, corporations and workers; people's disarmament could well take place in a context of popular support from many military personnel and thus be more open.

The group most able to carry out direct disarmament is the military itself. This suggests that social defence advocates should make every effort to communicate to and organize within the military forces.

4. The promotion of social defence should not be the preserve of any particular group or orientation. Although I have presented here a scenario for the revolutionary adoption of social defence, it is not the only nor even the most likely way social defence will be implemented.

Furthermore, it is not clear how best to promote even the specific aim of revolutionary social defence. A strategy emphasizing revolution may alienate some potential supporters and be partially counterproductive; on the other hand, such a strategy may provide such a threat to governments that they move in a measured way towards social defence. Conversely, the careful arguments for social defence by those favouring the reform path may, ironically, provide the best way to lay the groundwork for revolutionary social defence: the credibility of the careful scholars and lobbyists may actually serve better to spread the ideas of social defence.

These are simply cautionary comments. It is wise not to be overly committed to generalizations in this area, because no research has been done on the relative effectiveness of different methods of promoting social defence, nor are the potential criteria for evaluating different methods even spelled out, much less agreed upon. Because there has been so little experience in promoting social defence, and so little overt progress towards it, it is premature to rule out any method that seems compatible with social defence itself.

* The author wishes to thank Robert Burrowes, Jan Oberg, Ralph Summy and an anonymous referee for comments on drafts of this paper.


1. Key works include Anders Boserup and Andrew Mack, War Without Weapons: Non-violence in National Defence (London: Frances Pinter, 1974); Johan Galtung, Peace, War, and Defence: Essays in Peace Research, vol. 2 (Copenhagen: Christian Ejlers, 1976); Stephen King-Hall, Defence in the Nuclear Age (London: Victor Gollancz, 1958); Adam Roberts (ed.), The Strategy of Civilian Defence: Nonviolent Resistance to Aggression (London: Faber & Faber, 1967); Gene Sharp, Making Europe Unconquerable: The Potential of Civilian-Based Deterrence and Defence (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1985). For a critique see Alex P. Schmid with Ellen Berends and Luuk Zonneveld, Social Defence and Soviet Military Power: An Inquiry into the Relevance of an Alternative Defence Concept (Leiden: Center for the Study of Social Conflict, State University of Leiden, 1985).

2. Brian Martin, 'Social Defence: Elite Reform or Grassroots Initiative?', Social Alternatives, vol. 6, no. 2, April 1987, pp. 19-23. These two approaches correspond generally to two theoretical approaches to social defence described by Gustaaf Geeraerts, 'Two Approaches to Civilian Defence', pp. 5-19 in Gustaaf Geeraerts, ed., Possibilities of Civilian Defence in Western Europe (Amsterdam: Swets & Zeitlinger, 1977).

3. There are political parties that include social defence as part of their platform, such as the West German Green Party; antiwar groups that are strongly sympathetic to social defence, such as War Resisters' International; groups specifically promoting social defence, such as the network of groups in the Netherlands; and individuals active in promoting social defence, such as Hans Sinn in Canada.

4. The term 'social defence' is used in this paper in its narrow definition, referring to civilian use of non-violent methods as an alternative to the military. The broad definition of 'social defence' incorporates non-violent social struggles such as by local communities against corporate or government impositions. The grass-roots action approach in Table I links together people's non-violent action against military aggression with other grass-roots non-violent struggles against repression and oppression, but this linkage is not built into the narrow definition of 'social defence'.

5. Johan Galtung, 'Why Do Disarmament Negotiations Fail', Gandhi Marg, nos. 38-39, May-June 1982, pp. 298-307; Alva Myrdal, The Game of Disarmament: How the United States and Russia Run the Arms Race (NY: Pantheon, 1976).

6. One of the sources of failure was that most of the Czechoslovak leadership in 1968 was unaware of the power of the non-violent political action and made concessions to the Soviet government that undermined the resistance. See Jaroslav Sabata, 'Invasion or Own Goal?', East European Reporter, vol. 3, no. 3, Autumn 1988, pp. 3-7. This suggests that grassroots activists must ensure that elites understand the dynamics of non-violent action.

7. A longer-term perspective, factoring in the impact of the Indian example on non-violent activists worldwide, could well give a more positive assessment. In addition, the free press in India helps to prevent famine, whereas government control of the media has been implicated in major famines as in China in 1959-61. See Starving in Silence (London: Article 19, 1990).

8. Stanislaw Andreski, Military Organization and Society (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), has used the concept of participation to examine the relation of the military to society.

9. See for example Henry Jacoby, The Bureaucratization of the World (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973); Ekkehart Krippendorff, 'The State as a Focus of Peace Research', pp. 47-60 in Papers, XVI, The Rome Conference (Peace Research Society, 1970); Charles Tilly, ed., The Formation of National States in Western Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975); Charles Tilly, 'War Making and State Making as Organized Crime', pp. 169-191 in Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer & Theda Skocpol, eds, Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

10. This interpretation is given by Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), a key work on this topic.

11. Ibid., p. 4.

12. Brian Martin, Uprooting War (London: Freedom Press, 1984), p. 53.

13. This is clear from the careful study by Katherine Chorley, Armies and the Art of Revolution (London: Faber & Faber, 1943).

14. Social offence has the same relation to military offence as social defence does to military defence. The term 'social offence' should be distinguished from the term 'social attack' which refers, in parts of Europe, to non-violent action against government repression.

15. This is implicit in many works on social defence but seldom given the emphasis placed on local actions against a usurper or an external aggressor. See Brian Martin, 'Lessons in Nonviolence from the Fiji Coups', Gandhi Marg, no. 114, September 1988, pp. 326-339.

16. Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Boston, MA: Porter Sargent, 1973).

17. Dave Foreman and Bill Haywood, eds, Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching (Tucson, AZ: Ned Ludd Books, 1988, second edition).