'Neither victim nor executioner' - to Albert Camus' phrase we can add 'but nonviolent activist'. For nonviolence is fundamentally the search for alternatives to practising violence or submitting to injustice and oppressiion.
Nonviolent actions begin with recognition of the violence inherent in the status quo, in social relationships of domination. Its first action may often be refusal - both refusal to violate, perhaps merely by co-operating with the violence that upholds a system of domination, and refusal to be a victim. But behind this refusal is a commitment and a vision: a commitment to give people more control of their own lives and a vision of a social order where human beings can fulfil their potential for good.
A few nonviolent actions are heroic: none more so than the defiance of soldiers in tanks by unarmed people in Beijing and Manila in the 1980s and Prague in 1968. Many nonviolent actions are dramatic, seeking to demonstrate the illegitimacy of a regime - for instance, South African Blacks seeking to bathe on a Whites-only beach; or to alert the world to crimes against humanity - for instance, people entering nuclear testing zones. Some involve thousands of people and aim to instil a sense of their own power for change - demonstrations, strikes, boycotts. Some happen on the quiet, for instance when shipbuilders in Nazi-occupied Denmark contrived to 'misunderstand' orders and do their work so badly that the ship they were building could not be used in the war.
n extremes, a pacifist would rather die than kill - the same attitude shown by many of the students in Tiananmen Square. The primary focus, however, is not on the extreme but on the many smaller choices to be made, the points where people act out of habitual obedience or construct their vision to the 'normal' political routines. The constant endeavour of nonviolence is therefore to emphasise that we do have choices and to suggest that there are alternatives.
In most movements of mass unarmed struggle, there are likely to be relatively few complete pacifists. But movements which adopt nonviolence because in their particular situation it offers the most effective way of challenging entrenched power, implicitly acknowledge some of the key points of nonviolence. Their success depends on their appreciation of the dynamics of nonviolent action and insights which are an essential part of the philosophy of nonviolence.
You don't have to believe in nonviolence in principle to welcome methods of social change which do not depend on equipping and training yourselves with the weapons of war and building up military command structures, but which are open to all the community. You don't have to be a pacifist to acknowledge the strategic power of nonviolence in a social struggle: its ability to empower the hopeless and powerless; its impact in creating dilemmas for the oppressor and its capacity to provoke divisions within a ruling elite. A realist can see the wisdom of the nonviolent insistence that today's antagonist may be tomorrow's neighbour; on distinguishing between a person and the oppressive role they are currently playing; and above all that the means pursued in a social struggle will condition the future.
Oppressive power structures ultimately depend on the acquiescence of the majority of the people: the power of the people often rests in withdrawing consent from the system of government, both by noncooperation and through setting up autonomous parallel structures. Most discussion on nonviolent action tends to concentrate on methods of resistance and noncooperation. For Gandhi, however, the centre of nonviolent strategy lay in its programme for social reconstruction. The priority was to try to build a new society beginning at the base by behaving differently in everyday life. Independence would not begin only after the British had left; it had to be a process beginning now with internal reform, the colonised society regaining its fitness for self-government.
Originally, Gandhi's constructive programme began by stressing three points: most famously, the spinning wheel and the wearing of homespun cloth, but also, less symbolically, sanitation and literacy. As the movement progressed, the constructive programme expanded to address other points - for instance, overcoming 'untouchability' in the caste system and seeking the uplift of women - until by the end of his life Gandhi saw it as the daily embodiment of a nonviolent value system. It was also a form of training in nonviolence and a way of involving people in the movement for social change without necessarily engaging them in direct confrontation with authority. Small steps which began in people's daily lives grew into larger organisations - such as co-operatives for the distribution of homespun cloth, centres for basic education, and programmes for land redistribution. By the end of his life, Gandhi saw nonviolence largely in terms of constructive programme. Methods of direct resistance and confrontation would come into play when the powers-that-be obstructed the growth of the new society.
For its contemporary adherents, nonviolence remains something that has to be rooted in everyday life. This has many aspects: from the conduct of our interpersonal relationships to an awareness of the impact of our lifestyle on people in other countries and on the planet itself. The systems which threaten the world - militarily, ecologically, economically - seem out of human control. The nonviolent response is not to look for technological fixes but to identify where and how we can affect these systems, to pose fundamental moral and social questions directed not only at the ruling elites - the people most responsible - but also at ourselves and behaviour in our everyday lives. What can we do?
As in large-scale social struggle, in everyday life nonviolence does not seek to deny conflict but to bring about creative resolutions: encouraging people to stand up for themselves, challenging patterns of domination and submission, finding non-destructive ways of expressing anger, and witnessing to a larger vision and certain fundamental principles. Nonviolence seeks to create a culture that values the basic humanity of all people, that looks not for dominion over the earth but harmony with it, that cherishes diversity but also celebrates what people have in common, and that both practises and defends basic freedom and rights.
Nonviolence is visionary in seeking new possibilities, but also responsible in recognising the costs of a struggle and in recognising limits. One of the reasons human survival is now at peril is the widespread failure to recognise limits, but probably for the adherent of nonviolence the limits most difficult to accept are those on what we can achieve.
Our philosophy calls for revolutionary social changes yet, at times, only smaller changes seem to be on the social agenda. Movements are repressed or become isolated. Social attitudes move against the values we want to promote. Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright (who was rapidly transformed by popular nonviolent action from political prisoner to president), has written of the necessity to "live in the truth". Even when hopes are dim, this is the kernel of nonviolence. We cannot predict the fruits of our behaviour but we can be sure that life would not be worth living if the values of nonviolence were extinguished.