Non-Violent Direct Action

by Howard Zinn

excerpted from the book

Howard Zinn on History

Seven Stories Press, 2000, paper


The experience of the civil rights movement forced me to think about the process of social change-about the alternatives of violence and parliamentary reform, and about the principle that was at the heart of the Southern movement for equal rights-non-violent direct action. I presented this paper at the 1965 annual meeting of the American Orthopsychiatric Association in New York, and it was published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, January, 1966.

In 1937 sociologist Robert S. Lynd wrote a little gem of a book entitled Knowledge for What? in which he attacked the divorce of scholarship from the problems of his day. The book has just been reissued 27 years later. In the interim the world has experienced Auschwitz and Hiroshima and Birmingham, yet the accusation in that book against the world of scholarship remains exactly as true in every line. Social scientists for the most part still are not focusing their research directly on the world's urgent problems. True, they are accumulating data


on these problems, but too often they avoid moving to close to the presentation of solutions because at that point controversy enters. So the scholarly monographs and the social evils keep rising higher and higher in separate piles, parallel to one another with such Euclidian perfection that we begin to despair they ever will intersect.

I would like in this brief paper to at least initiate a discussion on the uses of power, not as an academic exercise, but in relation to what we see around us and to what we hear, which is more and more these days the sound of crowds in the streets.

The health of society, I assume, is dependent on a balance between people's expectations and the fulfillment of those expectations. Both the Buddhism of Gautama in the East and the Stoicism of Epictetus in the West in their emphasis on resignation as a means to happiness were fitted to the limits of a crude technology. Today the momentum of science has created worldwide waves of demand which can be fulfilled. Quiescence and resignation are no longer pertinent, and the clamor everywhere for change, though expressed in passion, is reasonable.

There is little question any more that change in our social institutions must come. Never before in history has there been such a consensus in objectives all over the world, nor such a variance of method in trying to achieve these objectives. Most men everywhere agree they want to end war, imperialism, racism, poverty, disease and tyranny. What they disagree about is whether these expectations can be fulfilled within the old frameworks of nationalism, representative government and the profit system. And running through the tension between agreement and disagreement are these questions: How much violence will be necessary to fulfill these expectations? What must we suffer to get the world we all want?

We have three traditional ways of satisfying the need for institutional change: war, revolution, and gradual reform. We might define war as violence from without, revolution as violence from within and gradual reform as deferred violence. I would like to examine all three in the new light of the mid-twentieth century.

Assuming that change always involves a degree of dislocation and of social cost, man's problem is then how to achieve maximum desirable change at minimum cost. War at best has been a haphazard way of deciding this question, for the impetus of war piles up the dead with little regard for social consequence, so that even those wars fought against the most obvious of evils, such as the Civil War (with Negro slavery at stake) and World War II (with global slavery at stake), brought in the first case the uncontrolled gushing of what Edmund Wilson calls "patriotic gore" and in the second the needless bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima. At its worst, war has been mass slaughter without even the saving grace of a definable social goal. The Trojan War was the first and classic case, and that element of idiocy has persisted in all wars in varying degree.

Up to the hydrogen bomb, it was still possible to weigh cost and consequence. Now we can throw away the scales, for it should be clear to any rational and humane person that there is no piece of territory (not Berlin or Viet Nam or Hungary), there is no social system yet put into operation anywhere by man (not socialism or capitalism or whatever) which is worth the consequence of atomic war. If war ever in its shotgun way represented a method of achieving social progress, the illimitable table scale of warfare today removes it forever as a justifiable method of social change. John U. Nef of the University of Chicago put it this way in his book War and Human Progress, which he wrote soon after World War II:

The only justification for war is the defense of a culture worth defending and the states of the modern world have less and less to defend beyond their material comforts, in spite of the claims of some to represent fresh concepts of civilization. The new weapons have made nonsense of defensive war. Peoples have been left without any means of defending except by destroying others, and the destruction is almost certain to be mutual.

What of revolution? Here the balance of achievement and cost is less haphazard, though still far from rational. The four great revolutions of modern times (the American, the French, the Russian and the Chinese) though all erratic in their movement towards social progress, in the end, I believe, justified the relatively small amount of violence required to fulfill them. But today, can we still look to revolutions as the chief means of social change, and as a useful means, whereby great change can be achieved at relatively small cost?

In some exceptional instances, yes. But, as a general rule, it seems to me that the conditions of the contemporary world have removed the feasibility of revolutions in the old sense. There are several reasons for this. One is that the power of weapons in the hands of the ruling elite makes popular uprisings, however great is the base of support, a very dubious undertaking. The other consideration, and probably more important, is that revolutions like wars no longer can be contained. They almost always involve one or more of the great nations of the world, and are either crushed by an outside power (as were the Hungarians in their revolt) or are prolonged to the point of frightful massacre (as the revolt in Viet Nam was met by the intervention of the French and then the Americans, and as the revolt in the Congo was stymied by Belgians and other forces). The Cuban revolution was an oddity; it was able to subsist because it brought into the picture not one but both the two leading world powers. There, even in success we can see the perils posed by revolution in the contemporary world, for the Cuban missile crisis almost set off a global disaster.

This removal of both war and revolution as methods of ushering in the inevitable changes would seem to leave us with the stock-in-trade of Western liberals: gradual reform. Here the United States is the prime example of peaceful accommodation, harmonizing gracefully with the requirements of change.

There is a double trouble with this pleasant solution: it does not square with the facts of the American past, and it does not fit the requirements of the American future. Let me explain what I mean.

It is remarkable how many persons, both in the United States and abroad, accept the legend that our country is the quintessential example of peaceful, progressive development as opposed to the violent change characteristic of other parts of the world. Yet the United States was born in violent revolution, and then solved its chief domestic problem not by reform but by one of the bloodiest wars in modern times. Its history has been punctuated with bursts of violence. Each outbreak was a reminder, quickly forgotten, that the changes we made through gradual reform were not fast enough or large enough to match the growing expectations of sections of the population: the slow steps made against slavery, for instance (the abolition of the slave trade as agreed to in Philadelphia in 1787, the Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850) were all failures, and the Civil War resulted.

Congress did not move fast enough to alleviate the pains of exploitation for the new industrial working class of the latter half of the nineteenth century, and so the period from 1877 to 1914 saw a series of labor explosions unmatched in their ferocity in any country in the world: the railroad insurrections of 1877, the Haymarket killings of 1886, the Homestead strike of 1894, the textile strike at Lawrence in 1912 and the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado in 1914. What, if not the failure of American reformism, explains the growth of the Socialist Party to a million supporters in 1912, the emergence of the Industrial Workers of the World as a radical, militant labor union devoted to the abolition of the capitalist system? It took the hysteria of world war to help crush both these movements.

How successful was the reform of the Progressive Era of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson when the whole structure they built up to keep the economy intact (Federal Reserve System, Federal Trade Commission, antitrust legislation) collapsed in 1929, and ushered in another decade of violence (bonus marches and marches of the unemployed, of sit-down strikes and clashes between workingmen and police) and again ended not in prosperity but in war? Is it New Deal reform or war expenditures that keep today's economy from collapsing into another period of violent conflict? Can we really say that the history of our nation is of carefully phased reform measures, of peaceful evolution towards domestic prosperity and national peace?

And now, in this last decade, we suddenly have learned that what we thought was gradual progress towards ending race prejudice in the United States was not nearly sufficient. It has taken mass demonstrations in Montgomery, Alabama; mass arrests in Albany, Georgia; the violence of the Freedom Rides; the bombings in Birmingham, and the murders in Mississippi to make us aware of the failure of piecemeal reform to establish racial justice in America.

There are lessons in this, I believe, far beyond the race crisis in the United States, and I want to explore some of them. My point is that gradualism, even in that presumed mecca of reform, the U.S.A., never really has matched the push of events, and that today the momentum of world change has made it even less able to do so. Thus, none of the traditionally approved mechanisms for social change (not war, nor revolution, nor reform) is adequate for the kind of problems we face today in the United States and in the world. We need apparently some technique which is more energetic than parliamentary reform and yet not subject to the dangers which war and revolution pose in the atomic age.

This technique, I suggest, is that which has been used over the centuries by aggrieved groups in fitful, semi-conscious control of their own actions. With the Negro revolt in America, the technique has begun to take on the quality of a deliberate use of power to effect the most change with the least harm. I speak of non-violent direct action. This encompasses a great variety of methods, limited only by our imaginations: sit-ins, freedom rides and freedom walks, prayer pilgrimages, wade-ins, pray-ins, freedom ballots, freedom schools, and who knows what is on the horizon? Whatever the specific form, this technique has certain qualities: it disturbs the status quo, it intrudes on the complacency of the majority, it expresses the anger and the hurt of the aggrieved, it publicizes an injustice, it demonstrates the inadequacy of whatever reforms have been instituted up to that point, it creates tension and trouble and thus forces the holders of power to move faster than they otherwise would have to redress grievances.

The crucial problems of our time no longer can be left to simmer on the low flame of gradualism, only to explode. Poverty, for instance, will not be attacked on the scale which is required until the ease of the well off is punctured in some brusque way. And in this shrinking world, for how long can the United Sates contain its vast wealth inside the national membrane and spend billions on useless products while a million people starve in Calcutta? Once people begin to measure the distribution of wealth on global lines there may well be a clamor against the deformed concentration of it in one country of the world. Jet travel makes the world smaller than the Roman Empire. Then why shouldn't the parallel existence of America and India be as much as object of concern as the parallel existence in Rome of the opulence of emperors and the misery of slaves? And how else will horror be expressed under conditions of today except by some form of popular protest?

Consider another issue: with the possession of nuclear bombs proliferating the world and with the mathematical probability of war by error increasing, can we depend on the normal parliamentary processes for concerned people to express to the powers of the world their revulsion against war? Should we not have an increasing number of those little bands of pacifists, from Bertrand Russell to the ones who sailed into the Pacific on the Goklen Rule?

Also there is the problem of freedom for dissenters, which exists in East and West, North and South, in communist and capitalist countries, in the old nations and in the new nations. How else but by Poznan uprisings, by demonstrations and civil disobedience, can such freedom be maintained and extended?

For us in the United States, it is hard to accept the idea that the ordinary workings of the parliamentary system will not suffice in the world today. But recall that Jefferson himself, watching the Constitution being created, and thinking of Shay's Rebellion, spoke of the need for revolutions every twenty years. And Rousseau, at the very moment representative government was beginning to take hold, pointed to the inability of anyone to truly represent anyone else's interests. And Robert Michels, the Swiss sociologist, 150 years after Rousseau, showed us how an "iron law of oligarchy" operates within any government or any party to separate top from bottom and to make power-holders insensitive to the needs of the mass. No matter how democratic elections are, they represent only fleeting and widely separated moments of popular participation. In that long span between elections, people are passive and captive.

Thus, we face a dilemma: wars and revolutions today cannot be limited and are therefore very perilous. Yet parliamentary reform is inadequate. We need some intermediate device, powerful but restrained and explosive but controlled, to pressure and even to shock the decision-makers into making the kinds of changes in institutions which fit our world. Walter Millis, in an essay written for the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, has argued persuasively that the price we may have to pay for a world without war is a kind of intermittent guerrilla warfare, constantly bringing society into rough accord with popular demands. It turns out (and we have the experience of all bourgeois, socialist and national revolutions to support this) that no form of government, once in power, can be trusted to limit its own ambition, to extend freedom and to wither away. This means that it is up to the citizenry, those outside of power, to engage in permanent combat with the state, short of violent, escalatory revolution, but beyond the gentility of the ballot-box, to insure justice, freedom and well being, all those values which virtually the entire world has come to believe in.

This idea links the Negro uprising in America to the turmoil everywhere in the world. It also links present to past, for what I am suggesting is a more deliberate, more conscious, more organized use of those techniques of constructive dissent which man has used in spontaneity and in desperation throughout history.

Those of us reared in the tradition of liberal, gradualist reform, and cherishing tranquillity, may have to learn to sacrifice a little of these in order not to lose all of them. Such a course may not be easy, but it is not a bad substitute for the world as we have known it up to now, a world of simplistic and terrible solutions, where we oscillated constantly between two alternatives: the devastation of war or the injustice of peace.

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