Nonviolence versus Capitalism


Brian Martin | War Resisters’ International – TRANSCEND Media Service

1. Introduction

Nonviolent action is the most promising method for moving beyond capitalism to a more humane social and economic system. Approaches based on using state power—including state socialism and socialist electoralism—have been tried and failed. Dramatic changes are definitely needed because capitalism, despite its undoubted strengths, continues to cause enormous suffering. Nonviolent action as an approach has the capacity to transform capitalism, though there are many obstacles involved.

With the collapse of most state socialist systems, there has been since 1990 much triumphal rhetoric about the superiority and inevitability of capitalism. But it is far from an ideal system—very far. It is producing economic inequality on a massive scale, with the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer. It is destroying traditional cultures, replacing them with a homogeneous consumer culture that lacks authentic community. It is causing enormous environmental damage, undermining biological diversity and depleting resources. It is making the lives of most workers bleak and meaning-less, while denying work to those who do not fit the available slots.

But capitalism does produce a massive quantity of goods. It harnesses human acquisitive drives to the task of production unlike any other system. Within market parameters, it provides goods and services in a generally responsive fashion, and has dramatically raised material living standards in many countries. Capitalism does have strengths. Do the weaknesses really matter, if there is no alternative?

Actually, it is absurd to say that capitalism is inevitable. This is really just an excuse for doing nothing to examine and promote improvements and alternatives. The way society is organised is due to the actions of people, and these actions can change. History shows a tremendous range of possibilities for human patterns of interaction. Furthermore, technological development is creating new options for the structuring of work, communication and interaction. Considering that capitalism is only a few hundred years old and continues to change, and that there is nothing approaching agreement that the current system is ideal, the assumption of inevitability is very weak indeed.

Defenders of capitalism assume that there are only two basic options: either capitalism or some sort of system based on authoritarian government, either state socialism or some other sort of dictatorship. (Capitalism is assumed to go hand in hand with representative government, but this ignores those countries with capitalist economies and authoritarian politics, including fascism and military dictatorship.) But of course there are more than these two options. There are other ways of organising economic and social life. The challenge is to figure out which ones are worthwhile and worth pursuing.

Even setting aside options that are completely different, capitalism is by no means a fixed and final system. It will be transformed and will transform itself in coming decades. It could become better or it could become worse, depending on what people do about it.

The two most prominent strategies against capitalism pursued during the 1900s were state socialism and socialist electoralism. Both were attempts to use the power of the state to transform capitalist relations. State socialism—as in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China—relied on capture of state power by a revolutionary party which, in the name of the working class, eliminated private ownership and replaced it by state ownership. In practice the communist party became a new source of rule, in many cases highly repressive.

Socialist electoralism is an attempt to bring about socialism more gradually, gaining state power through the electoral system, increasing the level of state ownership and putting restraints on capitalists. It has been pursued in countries such as Sweden, France and Italy. In practice this strategy has failed by being watered down. Rather than bringing about a transition to socialism, left-wing parties have instead become managers of capitalism, fostering social democracy, in effect an enlightened reform of capitalism. In many cases they have eventually adopted the same policies as their political rivals.

It may seem that capitalism, state socialism and social democracy are very different, but they all rely on the power of the state and hence, ultimately, on violence for control of society. Capitalism relies on state power to protect private property, state socialism relies on state power to run both the economic and political system and social democracy relies on state power to manage the economy. So at a deep level—the level of power for social control, and the ultimate reliance on violence—these three approaches have much in common.

Nonviolent action offers another road, with the potential to be a radical challenge to capitalism without relying on state power. There are hundreds of methods of nonviolent action, including leafleting, strikes, boycotts, marches, sit-ins, refusals to obey and setting up alternative institutions. These methods have been used extensively in all sorts of settings. The most well known are the campaigns for Indian independence led by Gandhi. Here is a list of some of the most often cited highlights of nonviolent action from 1900 onwards.

  • Resistance to Russian domination in Finland, 1899-1904.
  • Collapse of the Kapp Putsch, a military coup in Germany, 1920.
  • German resistance to the French-Belgian occupation of the Ruhr, 1923.
  • Gandhi’s campaigns in India, 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.
  • Toppling of 10 military dictatorships in South and Central America, 1930s to 1950s.
  • Resistance in several European countries to the Nazi occupation, 1940-1945.
  • US civil rights movement, 1950s and 1960s.
  • Sarvodaya campaigns in India and Sri Lanka, 1950s onwards.
  • Collapse of the Algerian Generals’ Revolt, 1961.
  • Czechoslovak resistance to the Soviet invasion, 1968.
  • The Iranian revolution, 1978-1979.
  • Direct action against nuclear power in various countries, 1970s onwards.
  • Campaigns against logging, large dams, freeways and on other environmental issues, 1970s onwards.
  • People power in the Philippines to bring down the Marcos dictatorship, 1986.
  • Palestinian intifada, 1987-1993.
  • Pro-democracy movement in China, 1989.
  • Collapse of East European regimes, 1989.
  • Thwarting of a coup in the Soviet Union, 1991.
  • Elimination of apartheid in South Africa, early 1990s.
  • Forced resignation of Indonesian President Suharto, 1998.
  • Removal of Serbian ruler Milosevic, 2000.

These are all examples of major challenges to aggression, repression and oppression carried out largely or entirely without violence (though of course violence is often used against nonviolent activists). These events include resistance to military invasion, toppling of repressive regimes and challenges to oppressive social systems or hazardous practices. A number of social movements, notably the feminist and environmental movements, have made nonviolent action an integral part of their campaigning.

But what about nonviolent action against capitalism? A look down this list reveals that not a single one of these highly prominent actions is specifically targeted against capitalism.

Actually, there has been an enormous range of nonviolent action against aspects of capitalism—just not usually at the dramatic level of the above examples.1 For example:

  • workers’ direct action against employers, such as strikes, boycotts, work-to-rule and factory occupations, to obtain better pay and conditions or a greater say in decision making;
  • workers’ control and cooperatives, providing alternatives to capitalist ownership and management;
  • environmental movement campaigns against damaging industries, harmful products and new industrial developments;
  • local campaigns against commercial developments (often linked to campaigns elsewhere);
  • squatting in unoccupied buildings as a means of exposing and challenging private control over housing;
  • global campaigns against agencies and arrangements extending the power of capital, such as campaigns against the World Bank and the Multilateral Agreement on Investment;
  • direct action against genetically engineered crops.

As well as these initiatives that challenge aspects of capitalism, a close look at just about any aspect of capitalist society will reveal challenges using nonviolent action. Consider advertising, a crucial part of consumerism and the commodity-based culture. Responses have included rejection of advertising messages (as in “no junk mail” signs on mail boxes), campaigns against particular styles of advertis-ing, and the creative defacing of billboards.

Nonviolent resistance to capitalism has occurred from the beginning of the industrial revolution through to the November-December 1999 protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organisation and subsequent protests in Washington DC, Prague, Melbourne and other cities against the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other global economic management forums. While there is ample nonviolent action within and against the capitalist system, this has not so often been conceived in terms of a nonviolence framework. Instead, the rhetoric and imagery of class struggle, including armed struggle, have had greater saliency in anticapitalist movements. Especially among Marxist organisers, there is neglect of or even antagonism to nonviolence.

The problem is compounded by a neglect of capitalism in writing and thinking on nonviolence. Gandhi’s constructive programme of village democracy and self-reliance was certainly noncapitalist, although capitalism as a system was not widely seen as one of his main targets in campaigning. However, nonviolence writers since Gandhi have largely neglected capitalism, and indeed this neglect can be traced to the heart of the consent theory of power used by Gene Sharp as the theoretical foundation of nonviolence theory.2 Sharp’s model assumes a dichotomy between rulers and subjects: if subjects withdraw consent, the power of rulers dissolves. This model works best, as a foundation for practice, when rulers are obvious, as in a military dictatorship.

From the point of the view of the ruler-subject model, capitalism is a complex system. There used to be just a few owners at the top (and there still are a few such as Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch), but increasingly ownership is dispersed among shareholders and managerial power dispersed within corporate bureaucracies. “Withdrawing consent” sounds easy enough in principle but what does it mean in practice: boycotting all corporations or refusing the boss’s orders? Most people participate in the market system in various ways that are not easily captured by the ruler-subject picture.

Capitalism is, in many ways, a more robust type of system than a dictatorial regime. Market relations draw people in, making them a part of the system, whereas a dictatorship has a more difficult time providing jobs and benefits to a large segment of the population. Injustice is experienced under both capitalism and a dictatorship, but with a dictatorship the source of injustice is easier to pinpoint. For nonviolence theory and practice, dictatorship is an “easy case”: people know what needs to be challenged and the primary questions are about how to mobilise support and maintain campaigning momentum in the face of repression. Something more sophisticated is needed to transform capitalism.

Many of the most powerful instances of nonviolent action have been largely spontaneous, with little planning or training. This is often the case in resistance to military coups, such as the 1920 Kapp Putsch in Germany, the 1961 Algerian Generals’ Revolt and the 1991 coup in the Soviet Union. In each case the nonviolent resistance was improvised on the spot, partly because there was little or no warning that a coup would occur. Even in some of the longer campaigns, the level of planning and training has been low, such as the intifada in Palestine, which burst on the scene as a surprise to both Israelis and the Palestinian leadership and whose course over the years was more an organic development than a carefully calculated trajectory.

Spontaneous nonviolent action has a better chance of being successful when people have an intuitive grasp of what needs to be changed. In the case of a military coup, the coup must be defeated and the status quo (or better) restored. The intifada was a change of tactics—it was mass unarmed action rather than terrorism, which had been used unsuccessfully by the Palestinian Liberation Organization—for a widely understood goal, namely ending the Israeli occupation. But if the goal is not so obvious to participants, then spontaneous nonviolent action—or violence, for that matter—is far less likely to be effective.

It was Gandhi who pioneered planning for nonviolent action. He saw overt action as part of a long -term strategy for social change, requiring great care in preparation, planning, discipline and training. His example has been taken to heart by a number of social movements, such as the US civil rights movement and antinuclear campaigners. Realising that an action may lack impact without sufficient preparation, if it is aimed at the wrong target or is ill-timed, campaigners have spent great effort in social analysis, community education and nonviolence training, in order to maximise effectiveness.

With planned nonviolent action, there is a much greater capacity to deal with complex systems of oppression, by working out targets that deal with the source of problems as well as tapping into popular concerns. A strike for higher pay can be valuable to exploited workers but does not challenge the relationship between employers and workers, whereas a work-in to demand a greater say in what is produced aims at a more fundamental change in the relationship.

It is worth noting that the strategies of Leninism and socialist electoralism are calculated, indirect and not “spontaneous.” Workers are expected to support political parties claiming to operate on their behalf rather than acting directly against those they see as their exploiters, such as their immediate bosses. Many workers have been sufficiently convinced that they channel their efforts away from “obvious” targets such as prominent capitalists, instead aiming at party building or election campaigning. Anticapitalist activists pursuing a strategy based on nonviolence can learn from this experience: workers and others are quite capable of understanding a long-term strategy for change that initially might not seem as intuitive as tackling obvious targets. The challenge is to develop a suitable strategy that engages large numbers of people.

There is another important reason why nonviolence planning is needed to tackle capitalism: the ways that exploitation and damage under capitalism are disguised. This is nothing new or peculiar to capitalism, since every system of exploitation and inequality is justified by some rationale, whether it is the divine right of kings or the naturalness of the caste system. Yet the process of obfuscation is less transparent with capitalism. The exploitation involved in trade—for example, selling bananas in exchange for computers—is not so immediately obvious as is the source of repression when police beat and torture dissidents. The mystifications involved in the commodity form were described insightfully by Marx in the mid 1800s, yet it remains a challenge to expose the exploitation involved.

Information—including records, computer programs, correspondence, and much else—plays an ever larger role in capitalist economies. This causes additional factors to come into play that make exposure of capitalist oppression more difficult. Governments use “disinformation”—intentional telling of lies and half-truths—to advance their interests. Corporations and governments use public relations to give their messages the right “spin,” both to boost favourable images and block damaging stories. Advertising fosters a mind-set in which it is natural to assume that commodities are the solution to problems, hindering critical thinking about the whole commodity system. Hollywood filmed entertainment creates attractive but deceptive images of what life can be like. The result is an information-rich environment that is immensely enticing. Contrary viewpoints, although sometimes censored, are often tolerated on the margins, giving the impression that there is a genuine marketplace of ideas.

This rich information environment provides new challenges for nonviolent activists. The traditional Gandhian philosophy of satyagraha involves seeking the truth through dialogue, with nonviolent action as a means of encouraging opponents to engage in the dialogue. That approach makes some sense when the facts of repression and oppression are reasonably obvious, where there is an obvious source of oppression and where there are opponents with whom activists can engage in dialogue, directly or via intermediaries. These conditions no longer apply. Much of the oppression in capitalism is built into the system of ownership and exchange: there are few obvious “opponents” who by their actions can change the system. Furthermore, the system for producing “unreality” has become so pervasive that straightforward dialogue seems ever more elusive. This is another reason why, for nonviolent action to be used effectively to transform capitalism, a deeper analysis is required, plus careful planning. A system built on a surfeit of information (with plenty of distortions and imbalances) requires a different sort of strategy than a system built primarily on censorship.

There is another reason why nonviolent action has not been seen as a strategy against capitalism: it has been mostly used as a method for promoting reform within capitalism. Strikes, boycotts, work-to-rule, rallies and many other methods have been used to improve workers’ pay and conditions, oppose harmful products and block damaging developments. These are all quite valuable, but are seldom seen as challenges to capitalism as a system. As a result, nonviolent action is not recognised as a potentially revolutionary strategy.

“Revolution,” namely a fundamental change in social relations, is of course the rhetoric of Marxism. “Reform” is seen as tepid and inadequate, even though a series of reforms may end up having a more lasting impact than a revolution that is quickly corrupted or reversed. Leninist strategy often relies on nonviolent action for early stages but on violence for “advanced” stages of overthrowing the ruling class. One result is that those who perceive themselves as revolutionaries seldom think of nonviolence as the primary means.

There are several ways to address this. One is to develop the model of nonviolent revolution, which has been espoused by Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan, Erik Dammann and others.3 Another is to scrap the very image of revolution as too tainted by violent and masculine imagery, and to substitute an alternative, such as to think in terms of goals and methods of equality, justice, truth and participation. One challenge is that the vocabulary of “revolution” has been taken over by advertisers.4 Any alternative vocabulary is similarly susceptible.

In any case, if nonviolent action is to become a strategy against capitalism, to replace it or transform it into something qualitatively different, then the strategy needs to go beyond reform. The key here is strategy. For nonviolence to be effective against capitalism, improved understanding is needed, both of capitalism and of nonviolence itself.

2. Social Analysis and Social Problems

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Nonviolence versus Capitalism


Published in 2001 by War Resisters’ International
This book is freely available online

Brian Martin is emeritus professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He is the author of 20 books and hundreds of articles on nonviolence, whistleblowing, scientific controversies, information issues, democracy and other topics. He is vice president of Whistleblowers Australia and runs a large website on suppression of dissent. His Ph.D. is in theoretical physics from Sydney University. He has taught a wide range of subjects including communication studies, environmental issues, peace studies, the politics of technology, and happiness. He has undertaken many community research projects with the group Schweik Action Wollongong. **CV** Contact:

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3 Responses to “Nonviolence versus Capitalism”

  1. Dear Brian,

    You are great defender of non-violent action, but you don’t tell us why countries have Armed Forces, why soldiers are trained in the Art of Killing, pilots learn the Sport of bomb dropping over urban areas, complemented nowadays, by pilot less drones, to accomplish the same mission.

    SAW (Schweik Action Wollongong) the Australian non-violent action group you belongs to, fosters awareness of nonviolent responses to aggression and repression. I hope you realize nonviolent action is exactly what led to 6 million Jews killed during the Nazi Holocaust, to the nearly 2 million victims of Pol Pot in Cambodia, who died of starvation, execution, disease or overwork, and to the 2 million nonviolent Vietnamese who died NOT of Capitalism but of Militarism.

    Hundreds of groups like SAW sprouted the world over, with the same nonviolent activities SAW carries out: leafleting, rallies, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, fasts and many other methods of social action. Nonviolent action prior to the Iraq invasion is well registered in our memories. What did all this international nonviolent activity led to? the destruction of Iraq, buildings, entire cities, and the death of over half a million nonviolent Iraqis.

    Brian, you estimate, like your SAW group, that non-violent action “maximises the potential for dialogue and tends to discourage violence by opponents”, overlooking the fact that politicians know this very well. They practice the Art of Dialogue to perfection. This is precisely why we have so many wars, so much suffering in the world, so many children who die before the age of 5, from bullets of malnutrition. It is through dialogue the actual “encourage” violence. Opponents have be created in order to organize games of war.

    At International Arms Fairs, Brian, you can see representatives of all Australian military industries ‘maximize the potential of dialogue’ in the most ‘nonviolent’ style possible. You can see them sign contracts of Death while sipping champagne, all very civilized.

    SAW say “nonviolent action has immense potential power to transform society”, something all politicians, all Governments – capitalist and socialist alike – know very well, but, what else can they do if they have weapons, missiles, explosives, military vehicles for sale and must sell them? the only option they have is to transform society the way we’ve seen it happen.

    You say: “Actually, it is absurd to say that capitalism is inevitable.” and you are right, but militarism has no economic of political system. It doesn’t matter how the military vote at elections: they can vote for an extreme left-wing party or an extreme right wing party, it makes not the slightest difference.

    Please have a look at the HUFUD website – -. and see the non-violent action SAW could take to really create a better world and save the planet. To me, your non-violent action should result in 1) no young Australian joining the Armed Forces 2) no Australian or foreigner resident in Australia accepting work in the military industry, 3) the closure of all military factories 4) the abolition of Armed Forces.

    Good luck, Alberto
    PS you may have seen last Monday’s announcement of the launch of HUFUD in Africa. It would be fabulous if you would be happy to be the Director of HUFUD AUSTRALIA ( or AUSTRALASIA or OCEANIA)

  2. Brian Martin says:

    Dear Alberto,

    Thank you for your comments. We have the same goal: opposing militarism and war.

    As for why there are armies and weapons for organised killing and destruction, I addressed this in my book Uprooting War ( You might have a different analysis, but we seem to agree that the military, and the use of science and technology for military purposes, are central to the war system.

    As for the victims of war and genocide, surely the killers are responsible – not those who tried to oppose the killing. Nonviolent action includes refusals by soldiers to obey orders to kill civilians and refusals by workers to contribute to arms production and sales.

    Protests did not prevent the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but they may have been responsible for the US government not at that time seeking regime change in other countries such as Iran. See my article “Iraq attack backfire” (

    I think we are using the word “dialogue” in different ways. I’m referring to genuine efforts to understand contrary views and reach agreement. You seem to be referring to something closer to propaganda or self-serving rhetoric.

    I agree completely with the goals of encouraging people to refuse jobs in the military and military industries, and shutting them down. Jørgen Johansen and I have recently written about social defence, an alternative to military defence ( Military systems are highly entrenched in political and economic systems, and in people’s thinking, so replacing these systems is necessarily a long-term project.

    All the best with your efforts.

  3. […] Can Nonviolence Beat Capitalism? Nonviolent action is the most promising method for moving beyond capitalism to a more humane social and economic system. Nonviolent action as an approach has the capacity to transform capitalism, though there are many obstacles involved. Read more>>   […]