The Shift Network Blog

Peacebuilding Through Nonviolence: The State of the Art

By Michael N. Nagler

The world is a bewildering place, and its problems are baffling: where do we begin to tackle them?  Like Goethe’s Faust, who yearned to ‘see the forces and the seeds’ that cause things, I have been on my own search for many years, and I find that there is one “force,” or seed of all the turmoil and destruction in the modern world; personal, planetary, and international, and that is our image of the human being.  When we think of ourselves as separate, material objects doomed to compete for scarce resources, it is only a matter of time before these problems become so critical that we must solve them or perish.  And that time is now.

We could say that every one of these problems is a form of violence, and therefore that the one greatest failure of our image of ourselves (I’m speaking of course of the image that dominates popular culture) is the failure to realize that our deepest capacity is our capacity to offer and respond to the offer of nonviolence.  Nonviolence is our destiny; it is the deepest endowment of human nature and the endpoint of conscious evolution.  It is because the progress toward that endpoint has been so stifled, particularly by the popular culture of industrialized societies like ours, that this ‘perfect storm’ of problems confronts us.

My spiritual teacher once said (in my presence, and I suspect partly for my benefit) that Mahatma Gandhi “came back from South Africa having realized God and quietly set about solving every problem of the modern world.”  He did this by, in his own words, creating in India “an ocular demonstration” of the power of nonviolence.  But do we have eyes to see?

Among the aspects of paradigm shift that are happening – let us hope they happen fast enough to save us from our own folly – is the emerging awareness that nonviolence is real and it’s happening all around us, that with systematic development they could become the norm.  But we have not been trained to “see” them.  Let us imagine what the period since Gandhi and King would look like if we knew what to look for. We would see that not only is nonviolence nearly ubiquitous (nearly two thirds of the world has experienced a major nonviolent episode or campaign) but there are at least five new developments in the field:

1. New Institutions. Along with more formal institutions such as the International Criminal Court and legal protocols like the “Right to Protect,” civil-society organizations have made their appearance on the world stage.  According to my colleague Randy Janzen, a pioneering researcher in this field, some fifty organizations are carrying out what’s called Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping in 35 areas of intense conflict worldwide, with impressive results.

2. Transmission. The peace movement has traditionally had to “reinvent the wheel” every time an issue arises. Today, activists are systematically sharing “best practices” with those in similar situations. Student leaders from the 2000 successful overthrow of President Milośevič in Serbia, for example, were on hand at Tahrir Square and created an organization to carry on this vital work. Training has become more common, and more sophisticated.

3. Research. A recent study showed that “transitions to democracy” (aka revolutions) that were free from violence were twice as effective as violent ones, in one third the time.  Not only that, they showed that nonviolent ones lead to greater democratic freedoms even when they “fail” than violent ones do when they “succeed” – validating a well known principle that nonviolence operates mostly beneath the surface.

4. New Players. Gandhi began his work in South Africa among enfranchised, “free” Indians, and his Satyagraha campaign was propelled to victory after two new groups were drawn in: laborers and women. Similarly today, women and indigenous people, who are increasingly threatened by corporate attacks on their lifestyles, have found ways to mount successful nonviolent resistance in India and the Western hemisphere. At least one regular organization, Via Campesina, has helped them gain visibility and effectiveness without sacrificing their traditional lifestyle.

5. New Context.  When Prof. Chenoweth, who at first did not believe in nonviolence, went to look up the research that led to Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works (cited in point 3, above) she found that while people had been arguing whether or not nonviolence “works” since times immemorial, no one had thought (or dared?) to look at the evidence! Nor was this unusual. Frans de Waal, decades earlier, found that no research had been done on the resolution of conflict among primates: “Fires start, but fires also go out. Obvious as this is, scientists concerned with aggression, a sort of social fire, have totally ignored the means by which the flames of aggression are extinguished. We know a great deal about the causes of hostile behavior in both animals and humans…. Yet we know little of the way conflicts are avoided—or how, when they do occur, relationships are afterward repaired and normalized. As a result, people tend to believe that violence is more integral to human nature than peace.”  This is slowly changing.

It would be hard to exaggerate the potential significance of these new developments.  Nonviolence is nothing less than the attempt of human nature to reassert itself against the conditioning of the industrial age. In unearthing our capacity for it —a process that still has far to go—we are beginning to realize the meaning of our existence.


Michael Nagler is Professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC, Berkeley, where he co-founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program. He is the founder and President of the Metta Center for Nonviolence and served on the Interim Steering Committee of the Nonviolent Peaceforce. He is the author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future, which received a 2002 American Book Award; Our Spiritual Crisis: Recovering Human Wisdom in a Time of Violence (2005); The Upanishads (with Sri Eknath Easwaran, 1987), and other books as well as many articles on peace and spirituality.  Michael is a long-time student of Sri Eknath Easwaran, founder of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, and has lived at the Center's ashram in Marin County since 1970.

Michael’s recent book: The Nonviolence Handbook: A Guide to Practical Action is available through your favorite bookstore/online retailers and directly through Berrett-Koehler Publishers - click here. It is also available from Metta Center for Nonviolence: mettacenter.org/books/.