Nonviolence: Negative vs. Positive

EDITORIAL, 27 Jun 2011

#170 | Johan Galtung, 27 Jun 2011 - TRANSCEND Media Service

There is much talk about nonviolence these days.  Politicians and journalists get serious about the power that played a key role in ending colonialism (India) and the Cold War (Gdansk, Leipzig); unmentioned by Obama in his belligerent Nobel Peace Prize speech 2009.  He would not have been president without the nonviolence of, say, the Freedom Riders[i] against Anglo-Saxon brutality in the US South.  But, there is nonviolence and nonviolence, as with most things, and the difference matters in theory and in practice.

Both are forms of power.  Negative nonviolence tries to stop the other side’s direct or structural violence whereas positive nonviolence tries to make the antagonist start being peaceful.  Thus, negative nonviolence demands acts of omission–no more violence–and positive nonviolence invites acts of commission, for peace.

Negative nonviolence includes all forms of action against, short of physical violence, like non-cooperation, civil disobedience, breaking laws, declaring and practicing autonomy.  And positive nonviolence includes clearing the past through conciliation, the present through mediation of dangerous conflicts, and building a future through equitable participation in positive projects.  They are not exclusive; a Gandhi, a Martin Luther King did both.

Obviously the two forms have abstention from direct physical violence in common.  But whereas negative nonviolence includes violence like “rude gestures, taunting, haunting officials”[ii], the positive nonviolence insists on nonviolent speech and thought; beyond the psychological capacity of many.  How can I be against them and for them at the same time?  By seeing them as ambiguous.

However, there are deeper differences in philosophy.

Imagine a state using violence, war, external or internal, “civil”.  There are five very different ways of responding.

The first is to respond in kind and enter a war with three outcomes: A wins, B wins, stalemate (ceasefire, armistice, whether preparing for renewed hostilities or not).  Second: guerrilla or terrorism, continuation of the war by less formal means.  Third: negotiation, continuation of the war by verbal means.  They all have something in common: a winner, a loser, or stalemate.

And that also applies to the fourth, negative nonviolence.

Everything is done to leave the powers that be with only one option: capitulation; whether in exile, in court, or as killed.  Restricting social space to only one point is violence, under the guise of nonviolence.  And behind that lurks the idea of the other side as intrinsically evil, to be incapacitated; not human.

Enters, as fifth, Gandhi (and Frontier Gandhi.[iii])  The other side is not evil, but the conflict is.  Do not fight, to coerce, but dialogue, to convert.  Arne Næss and this author identified gandhian norms for negative and positive nonviolence, like[iv]:


N12 Define the conflict well!

N121 State your own goal clearly!

N122 Try to understand your opponent’s goal!

N123 Emphasize common and compatible goals!


N13 Have a positive approach to conflict!

N132 See conflict as opportunity to meet the opponent!

N133 See conflict as opportunity to transform society!

N134 See conflict as opportunity to transform yourself!


N25 Do not polarize!

N251 Distinguish between antagonism and antagonist!

N252 Distinguish between person and status!

N253 Maintain contact!

N254 Empathize with your opponent’s position!

N255 Be flexible in defining parties and positions!


N31 Solve conflict!

N311 Do not continue conflict struggle forever!

N312 Always seek negotiation with the opponent!

N313 Seek positive social transformations!

N314 Seek human transformation of self and opponent!


N35 Conversion, not coercion!

N351 Seek solutions acceptable to self and opponent!

N352 Never coerce your opponent!

N353 Convert your opponent into a believer of the cause!


Gandhian nonviolence covers negative and positive aspects. Self-immolation (Tunis), massive protests and demos, walking or not (Tahrir), belong; but seeing the opponent as somebody simply to be removed, by own will or not, is not gandhian.  The gandhian approach is to remove autocracy and cleptocracy in favor of rule by the people, economy for the people by converting the autocrat-cleptocrat, not by coercing him.  Readiness for dialogue is almost built into the word “gandhian”.  When dialogue offers from a Gaddafi, an Assad, are rejected by the opposition demanding regime -person change, there is sloppy conflict analysis at work.  It smacks of a deep culture ever ready to issue certificates of evil.

Eliminating a demonized leader is counted as victory, and to violent logic it is.  But gandhian victory would be to arrive, through dialogue, at an acceptable outcome, not confusing persons with issues.  An autocrat knows much about power, not only for himself, and a cleptocrat knows much about wealth, not only for himself.  Make them work for a solution.  If crimes have been committed, then the rule of law should prevail; but exchanging clemency for contrition, when possible, might be a wiser policy.

Getting rid of the autocrat and-or cleptocrat may also create martyrs and harden their supporters.  A vacancy at the top may be filled by equally violent people, also from the nonviolent side.  And a new constitution may change institutions, not structures; like the imperial structures torturing the Arab-Muslim world.

Just as the good aspects of Gaddafi(ism) and Assad(ism) should be retained, so also for Saddam Hussein and bin Laden.  Killing them is no substitute for understanding something not paid attention to.  Negative nonviolence is indispensable, but like violence, silences that other voice.  Positive nonviolence is never afraid of dialogue and mutual learning.  Use them both, hand in hand.

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[i].  See the excellent piece by one of them, Bernard Lafayette Jr., “The Freedom Riders”, IHT, 21-22 May 2011. 

[ii].  Nos. 30-32 of 198 Weapons of Transformation, distributed by Anwar Fazal (, from Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action.  Gene Sharp deserves credit for outstanding work to make such techniques well known, but is it nonviolence?

[iii].  See Michael Shank, “Islam’s Nonviolent Tradition; History is replete with peaceful role models like the Frontier Gandhi of colonial India”, The Nation, May 16, 2011.  His name was Abdul Ghaffar Khan; this author actually met him, a giant.  For an excellent review of a books on nonviolence–even if the distinction between negative and positive could have been more clear–see Brian Urquhart, “Revolution Without Violence”, NYRB, March 10 , 2011 – the book being Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash, Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Nonviolent Action from Gandhi to the Present, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[iv].  54 norms are found on the cover pages of Johan Galtung, A Theory of Conflict, TRANSCEND University Press, 2010 (; a third of them are in the text.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 27 Jun 2011.

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10 Responses to “Nonviolence: Negative vs. Positive”

  1. Very enlightened analysis on both -ve and +ve nonviolence. I agree with you indeed. But I felt difficulties to understand the number of N.

  2. Tim Bryar says:

    Hi Johan, an interesting concept. An overemphasis on ‘negative nonviolence’ is indeed an issue, no doubt bound up in the cultural dominance of ‘minimalist representative democracy’ and sovereignty as a state-level only phenomenon. However I wonder if a focus on the solutions of nonviolence (that is, as a negative or positive form) detracts from the process of nonviolence, and the power for peace inherent in the process itself? As a process, nonviolence is a way of dealing peacefully with conflict, even without a ‘solution’. I find South Africa particularly intriguing in this respects. In South Africa, nonviolence did indeed help bring an end to apartheid (a solution). But in the process, the nonviolent action taken helped create alternative health care, alternative schools teaching the ‘people’s curriculum’, and other things. What makes this point more fascinating is that now in post apartheid South Africa, nonviolent struggles are aimed at achieving what the process of nonviolence before apartheid managed to address (i.e., health, education, water etc).

    Related to this point, I find it interesting that in your book “A theory of conflict” you briefly outline a process of ‘structural conflict resolution’ which focuses on process and capacity. Yet in your book on “A theory of development – overcoming structural violence” you seem to focus less on process and more on solutions. I personally found the former to be most useful as it allows for overcoming both structural and cultural violence, as well as being a possible approach for empowerment and capacity building at the grassroots level. In that sense, I see related to Foucault’s notion of freedom as the capacity for human transgression. And such a capacity may lead to solutions, or it may not. But while it may not ‘transform’ the conflict, I think as a process nonviolence in this way can ‘transcend’ the conflict by creating spaces and moments of ‘peace’ despite the violence. An article by Sussman (2011) in “The Atlantic” on the Egyptian ‘revolution’ provides an interesting case in point for reflection. In it she quoted an Egyptian lady who said “Those 18 days in Tahrir Square were utopian, but now there’s a lot of work to do in an ugly reality”. She goes on further to write “As the political space narrows [from 3 ministers under Mubarak to 1 now] the physical space for women to assert themselves is also shrinking”, citing the violent turn during a march on International Women’s Day ( a month or so after Tahrir Square) where women were arrested, beaten and verbally abused.

    Anyway, just some thoughts and thank you for sharing yours and keeping the debate over nonviolence alive.

    • Reply from Prof. Galtung:

      Dear Tim – thanks for this deep comment. What I suggest is to add positive aspects, not to subtract from the negative. That negative nonviolence happened is already historical. But positive action on the side, precisely health clinics, communicate extremely well. So do efforts to understand better how autocracy sees itself, and to make more clear that the action is against the system more than the persons.

      johan galtung

      • Tim Bryar says:

        Hi Johan,

        Thanks for your response (I only just saw it, hence my delay in continuing the dialogue). I hear your point about ‘both-and’. What I was trying to suggest is that rather than simply adding the positive to the negative, we can have a “truer” both-and; that is, using your terms, positive non-violent action that has negative effects. That is, the act of building is correlatively resisting and destroying. In relation to your structural conflict resolution process, this would entail not so much combining ‘confrontation’ and ‘decoupling’, but rather blurring the line between the two such that an act of decoupling itself is confrontation. The best example I can think of currently is the Food Sovereignty Movement. Food Sovereignty is defined as the right of peoples to defining their own food and agriculture systems to promote healthy and culturally appropriate food that is produced through ecologically sustainable methods (IPC 2010). In relation to ‘both-and’ the definition of food sovereignty also states that “It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fishers systems determined by local producers and users” (IPC 2010). The Mataungan Association in Papua New Guinea also is an example. In response to colonial processes which attempted to set up local government structures and appropriate land and copra plantations, the Mataungan Association established its own local governance structures that cut across tribal lines and developed its own business to help fund activities and infrastructure. ‘Decoupling’ at its best, and a form of recouping emerged when the PNG government included this local sovereignty model as part of its development plans.

        Your point about targeting the system and not an individual is also important. I think what we see in these “democracy movements” is (a) many heterogenous smaller protest/resistance movements/actions coagulating into one big movement, that (b) get subsumed into a homogenous ‘democracy movement’ which gets invested in “removing a dictator”. I think the latter occurs perhaps because of a lack of language to describe the diverse goals of the protestors, and so ‘democracy’ is the only language available. In addition, there are those who have an interest in making sure it is labelled as such. Consider these comments from the finance minister from the interim Tunisian government:
        “So when the revolution started in Tunisia, in the first few days their demands were jobs and justice, but then within 3 or 4 days they were very quickly turned into political change and political reforms because people realized that you cannot have economic development without political institutions that protect that economic development and especially protect against corruption”. The hegemony of representative, capitalist, security based democracy in full force. Similarly, David Hirst wrote in the Guardian that despite socio-economic underpinnings, the Egypt and Tunisian uprisings were “self-evidently democratic” and that “the virtual absence of other factional or ideological slogans, has been striking”. We lack the language to explain and envisage plurality, whether its plurality in harmony or conflictual. Democracy is the closest thing we have, but at the end of the day its representational aspects are its most violent.

        Enough for now. I hope you’re well.

        Kind regards,

  3. Rene Wadlow says:

    Review of a recent book by Gene Sharp, mentioned above in the footnotes:Self-Liberation : Is There Any Other Kind ?
    Rene Wadlow

    The great problem of revolutionary action by the masses lies in this: how to find the methods of struggle which are worthy of men and which at the same time even the most heavily armed of reactionary powers will be unable to withstand.
    Barthelemy de Ligt The Conquest of Violence

    The largely non-violent people’s revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt followed by large protest demonstrations throughout the Arab world as well as Iran have drawn attention to the use of non-violent strategies in the process of deep social change. When people want to end oppression and achieve greater freedoms and more justice, there are ways to do this realistically, effectively, self-reliantly and by means that will last.

    Gene Sharp has been writing and talking about the strategies of non-violent action for a good number of years. I had participated in two seminars that he had led in Geneva in the late 1970s, and so I have read a good deal of his writings. Although he spent nine months in jail for objection to military service followed by the limitations of parole for another year during the 1950-1953 Korean War, Sharp has been influenced by the thinking of military planning with the need to have a broad strategy which then leads to appropriate tactics. Thus some have called Sharp the “von Clausewitz” of non-violent struggle.

    The first step in strategy-building is a detailed analysis of the conflict situation, the strengths and weaknesses of the contending groups and their sources of power. How do those strengths and weaknesses compare with each other? How might the respective strengths and weaknesses be changed? As Sharp has written “To think strategically means to calculate how to act realistically in ways that change the situation so that achievement of the desired goal becomes more possible…How can people liberate themselves and develop the capacity to prevent the return of any system of oppression as they proceed to build a more free, democratic, and just society?

    Sharp has read widely among anthropologists on what Robert MacIver called The Web of Government (1947). The web is made of institutions, attitudes, and cultural forms that structure a society and socialize most people to obey the norms. Sharp and his colleague Robert Helvey have called these sources of power “the pillars of support” for a regime. These sources of power “include the acceptance of the ruler’s right to rule (‘authority’), economic resources, manpower, military capacity, knowledge, skills, administration, police, prisons, courts, and the like. Each of these sources is in turn closely related to, or directly dependent upon, the degree of cooperation, submission, obedience, and assistance that the ruler is able to obtain from his subjects. These include both the general population and his paid ‘helpers’ and agents”. Thus the ruler’s power is not monolithic and permanent, but instead is always based upon an intricate and fragile structure of human and institutional relationship.

    The pillars of support of a regime are always more fragile than they seem at first. As Karl Deutsch noted in his studies of political communities “Totalitarian power is strong only if it does not have to be used too often. If totalitarian power must be used at all times against the entire population, it is unlikely to remain for long.”

    Much of Sharp’s strategic approach is based on insights of Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi that the power of any government is dependent on the cooperation — the obedience — with the orders of the rulers. That is why the term noncooperation takes on its strategic meaning. Noncooperation is a large class of methods of non-violent actions that involve deliberate withholding of social, economic, or political activity. Thus Sharp pays a good deal of attention to the techniques of noncooperation of labour movements — strikes, walkouts, boycotts, slowdown of production etc.

    Once one has made a detailed analysis of the sources of power, the next step is an overall strategic approach to coordinate and direct all appropriate and available resources (human, political, economic, cultural) to obtain its objectives in a conflict. While there is often broad agreement at the level of analysis of the sources of support of a regime, there can be real differences in the articulation of aims. There are broadly three goals for action: conversion, compromise and disintegration.

    Conversion is the most optimistic. It is the hope that the opponents will have a change of heart and accept the objectives of the non-violent group. The King will give up his absolute power and become a constitutional figurehead.

    Compromise is the usual aim of many reform movements. The King continues to have a good deal of authority, but the powers of the Parliament are strengthened.

    Disintegration. The sources of power are so severed by noncooperation that the opponent’s system or government simply dissolves and is replaced by new institutions. The King goes into exile and the nobles become businessmen.

    Often there will not be full agreement on the goal — a “let us see what will happen” is often the first basis for action. Nevertheless, strategies are often shaped by goals, and there needs to be a certain level of common vision for action to be undertaken.

    The third step is the tactics, the techniques of action appropriate to the setting and the culture. As the German sociologist Karl Mannheim once wrote “The techniques of revolution lag far behind the techniques of Government. Barricades, the symbols of revolution, are relics of an age when they were built up against cavalry.”

    To be effective, one needs to know the wide range of possible non-violent actions and the history of their use in past conflicts — just as the military need to understand the range of military techniques available and how they have been used in the past. As Sharp writes “No easy answer to the problem of dictatorship exists. There are no effortless, safe ways by which people living under dictatorship can liberate themselves…Our past understanding of the nature of the problem of modern dictatorships, totalitarian movements, genocide, and political usurpation has been inadequate. Similarly, our understanding of the possible means of struggle against them, and of preventing their development has been incomplete. With inadequate understanding as the foundation of our policies, it is no wonder that they have proven ineffective.”

    The people’s revolution of the Middle East will add new tools and new examples to the range of non-violent action.

    The writings of Gene Sharp are available on the website of the Albert Einstein Institution in East Boston, MA One of the most recent is Self-Liberation: A Guide to Strategic Planning for Action to End a Dictatorship or Other Oppression

  4. Satoshi says:

    I agree with Prof. Galtung completely. Now, the hard task – truly a Herculean task – is how to fill (or to narrow even one inch) the gap between the reality of violence/violent situation and the “Ns” that Prof. Galtung discusses.

    Let me add a bit. The essence of nonviolence (ahimsa) stems from one’s inner peace (shanti). Gandhi, for example, practiced meditation daily to maintain or discover his inner peace. Its fruit or at least part of its fruit transformed into his principle of nonviolence; negative ahimsa and positive ahimsa.

    By the way, as Prof. Galtung mentions, what happened to the Nobel Peace Prize? Conflict/violence should be transformed into peace/nonviolence. But how about the Noble “Peace” Prize? Did it transform itself into other prize although the name of the Prize remains the same? Or is it time to change to the name of the Prize?

  5. Adam Davidson-Harden says:

    I find this incisive as usual, and a helpful extension of your thought on positive and negative peace, direct/structural/cultural violence. My only critical observation concerns the association of self-immolation as a form of nonviolence. I would rather offer that it is a form of direct violence against the self, and if as a symbolic act it is intended to send a message, then that message is a profoundly sad and tragic one. Others could ascribe it with some sort of symbolic significance, but in actuality it is an act of direct (with links to structural?) violence upon the self.

  6. I agree with Mr. galtung.

  7. […] per la pace. Non sarebbe diventato presidente senza la nonviolenza dei, diciamo, Freedom Riders [i] contro la brutalità anglo-sassone nel Sud degli USA. Ma c’è nonviolenza e nonviolenza, come […]

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