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The Political Objective And Strategic Goal Of Nonviolent Actions

By Robert J. Burrowes

18 July, 2014

All nonviolent struggles are conducted simultaneously in the political and
strategic spheres, and these spheres, which are distinct, interact
throughout. I have discussed this at length elsewhere: see 'The Strategy
of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach'
Despite this, only rarely have nonviolent struggles been conducted with a
conscious awareness of this vitally important relationship. Gandhi's
campaigns were very effective partly because he understood the distinction
and relationship between politics and strategy in nonviolent struggle. And
the failure of many campaigns can be attributed, in part, to the fact that
most activists do not. To illustrate the distinction and the relationship
between these two spheres, and to highlight their vital importance, this
article discusses them within the simpler context of nonviolent actions.

Every nonviolent action has a political objective and a strategic goal.
When planning an action, it is vitally important to distinguish between
its objective and its goal. The political objective of the action is a
statement of what the group wants to do: to demonstrate in the city
square, to hang a peace sign on the nuclear warship, to picket a factory,
to blockade the bulldozer, to occupy the embassy, to go on strike. But why
does the group want to do this? Usually, it is to persuade one or more
sections of the community to act differently in relation to the campaign
issue. So the strategic goal identifies, first, who the group wants to
influence, and second, what they want them to do. For example, if the
political objective is to demonstrate in the city square, one possible
strategic goal might be to cause members of the public to speak out in
support of the activist perspective. If the political objective is to
picket a factory, the strategic goal might be to cause workers (through
persuasion) not to enter it. If the political objective is to blockade a
bulldozer, the strategic goal might be to cause workers to stop logging,
or, if the media is present, to cause television viewers to not buy old-
growth timber from a particular company.

As can be seen from these simple examples, it makes more sense to decide
the strategic goal first, and to then design an action to ensure that the
goal is achieved. In other words, it is superior strategy to 1. decide who
you want to influence and what you want them to do (derived from the
political and strategic assessment that guides your struggle), 2. decide
on a tactic that will do this, and 3. design the action so that it will do
this most effectively. Thus, a strategic goal should be stated using this
form: to cause a specified group of people to act in a specified way.
Further examples of strategic goals that conform to this formula include:
to cause trade unionists to place work-bans on ships carrying uranium, to
cause more men to speak out publicly against domestic violence, to cause
builders to stop using old-growth timber.

Once the strategic goal has been carefully and specifically defined,
equally careful thought should be put into working out what tactic (at
this stage of the strategy) will most likely achieve this goal and how it
should be designed (so that it will cause the specified audience to act in
the specified way). Of course, good action design requires an awareness of
what makes nonviolent action work in the first place.

Nonviolent action works because of its capacity to create a favourable
political atmosphere (because of, for example, the way in which activist
honesty builds trust); its capacity to create a non-threatening physical
environment (because of the nonviolent discipline of the activists); and
its capacity to alter the human psychological conditions (both innate and
learned) that make people resist new ideas in the first place. This
includes its capacity to reduce or eliminate fear and its capacity to
'humanise' activists in the eyes of more conservative sections of the
community. In essence, nonviolent activists precipitate change because
people are inspired by the honesty, discipline, integrity, courage and
determination of the activists – despite arrests, beatings or imprisonment
– and are thus inclined to identify with them. Moreover, as an extension
of this, they are inclined to act in solidarity.

To summarise and illustrate the argument so far, consider a nonviolent
struggle in which the activists are working to end sexual violence in a
local community. One strategic goal of the group might be: to cause the
men in a specified group (perhaps those in a particular organisation) to
take specified action (sign a personal pledge to not use pornography? put
a sign in their front window saying they abhor sexual violence? undertake
to speak out publicly against all forms of sexual violence? join a group
that organises counselling for male perpetrators?) to help halt sexual
violence in that community. The strategic goal will be achieved, at least
in part, if some men respond by doing the specified act(s). So what should
be the political objective of the action; that is, what nonviolent action
will best cause the specified men to act in this way? To 'out' known
perpetrators by putting their photograph in public places? To conduct a
street rally involving local women? To repaint a billboard that
objectifies women? To picket the local hotel or brothel every Saturday
night? To organise an exhibition of artwork by survivors of sexual
violence? Or something else? For the action to be strategically effective,
it must be planned to achieve the strategic goal.

And how might the action be designed to maximise its effectiveness? What
qualities (truthfulness? dignity? respectfulness?) can the activists
demonstrate that will most influence these men? How can the action be
carried out in a way that engages these men? For example, human needs
theory suggests that if you want people to change their behaviour,
activists must provide opportunities for involvement that allow people to
enhance their self-esteem and/or security, at least.

If the strategic goal of a nonviolent action is achieved, then the action
was strategically effective; this does not mean or require, however, that
its political objective was achieved. In fact, it might not have been.
This is because strategic effectiveness is unrelated to the achievement of
the political objective. For example, the political objective of activists
might be to blockade a bulldozer. However, the (usually unspecified)
strategic goal of the bulldozer blockade should be something like this: to
cause consumers to stop buying (the specified) paper products that are
made from woodchips taken from old-growth forest (by a specified company).
In this case, as long as the action is well-designed, it does not matter
if the activists are arrested before the blockade takes place, because the
message of their truthfulness, commitment, discipline, courage and
sacrifice, together with the solidarity action they are calling for (which
will undermine the power of their opponent), will still go out to their
audience. In short, the failure to physically stop the bulldozer is
strategically irrelevant.

It is the failure to distinguish between the political objective and the
strategic goal that often causes a great deal of confusion, particularly
around such questions as the role of secrecy and sabotage, in planning
nonviolent actions. Many groups attach great importance to the political
objective of their action, and use secrecy to improve their prospects of
being able to carry it out. But this is invariably counterproductive, in
the strategic sense, and is based on a flawed understanding of how and why
nonviolence works. This is because, as explained above, achievement of the
political objective is not equivalent to achievement of the strategic
goal. And while many activists achieve their (secret) political objective,
they fail to achieve (what should be) their strategic goal (to cause
specified people to act in the specified way) because the qualities (such
as honesty and integrity) of activists that inspire their audience are not
allowed into play. (There are, of course, many other reasons why the use
of secrecy is strategically counterproductive.)

For some types of action – such as a rally, a picket or a strike – no one
would even suggest using secrecy. But whatever the action, as explained
above, strategic effectiveness is unrelated to whether the action is
successfully carried out or not (provided it is strategically selected,
well-designed and sincerely attempted). This point was classically
illustrated by the Indian satyagrahis who attempted to nonviolently invade
the Dharasana salt works in 1930. (Because it illustrates the point so
effectively, I have simply repeated the example that I cited in an earlier
article. See 'Nonviolent Activism and [the] Police'
http://dkeenan.com/NvT/37/6.txt) Despite repeated attempts by many
hundreds of activists to walk into the salt works during a three week
period, not one activist got a pinch of salt! But an account of the
activists' nonviolent discipline, commitment and courage – under the baton
blows of the police – was reported in 1,350 newspapers around the world.
As a result, this action – which failed to achieve the political objective
of seizing salt – functionally undermined support for British imperialism
in India. (For an account of the salt raids at Dharasana, see Thomas
Weber. '"The Marchers Simply Walked Forward Until Struck Down": Nonviolent
Suffering and Conversion'
If the activists had resorted to the use of secrecy, there would have been
no chance to demonstrate their honesty, integrity and determination – and
to thus inspire empathy for their cause – although they might have got
some salt! (If salt had been removed secretly, the British government
could, if they had chosen, ignored it: after all, who would have known or
cared? However, they could not afford to let the satyagrahis take salt
openly because salt removal was illegal and failure to react would have
shown the salt law – a law that represented the antithesis of Indian
independence – to be ineffective.)

For essentially the same reason (as well as many others not discussed
here), sabotage is strategically counterproductive when employed as part
of a nonviolent struggle. If the important aspect of a nonviolent action
is its strategic goal, then activists who plan acts of sabotage (that is,
for example, their political objective is to disable a bulldozer or to
destroy the nose cone of a nuclear missile) must be able to identify how
this act will cause their specified audience(s) to act on the issue in the
specified way(s). If they cannot, the action might well be strategically
ineffective or even counterproductive, no matter how much media attention
is gained if the political objective (damaging the equipment) is achieved.
Thus, although this act might mobilise some people (and recent conflict
theory provides several thorough explanations of why it will be few), the
fact remains that activists who use sabotage (and the secrecy that almost
invariably accompanies it) are placing too much emphasis on their
political objective (the act of sabotage itself) rather than their
(unidentified) strategic goal. As explained above, this limits the
possibility of activist qualities that inspire the audience being allowed
into play.

Whether or not activists achieve their political objective is
strategically irrelevant. This is because an effective nonviolent action
is designed to achieve its strategic goal, irrespective of the response of
opponents or the authorities to the political objective of the action.
Whether or not activists achieve their strategic goal, however, is always
strategically determinative.

Robert J. Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to understanding and
ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an
effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a
nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of 'Why Violence?'
http://tinyurl.com/whyviolence His email address is [email protected]
and his website is at http://robertjburrowes.wordpress.com



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