The Question of Non-Violence in Contemporary Social Movements

Convenor: Vinvent Milllou




The past 20 years have been rife with occupations, riots, mass demonstrations and civil disobedience in liberal democracies. A question that divides almost all social movements is the question of violence. Activists feud amongst themselves, some endorsing the historical and intellectual legacy of civil disobedience, while others defend specific forms of violence, such as clashes with the police and targeted property destruction. Under the influence of these new social movements, civil disobedience scholars have taken an “anti-legal turn” and criticize the Rawlsian requirement of “fidelity to law” as the subject disobeys. However, the question of political obligation is not the main point of contestation for activists; for most of them that question is solved, at least in practical terms. They clash over the question of violence. The controversy among activists poses a challenge to political theorists, who must revise their account of violence and nonviolence and ask anew when violence is legitimate and when nonviolence is potent.

Nonviolent activists and rioters share a common desire for radical change, but they differ on the desirable ends and means of that change. Both believe that the other is playing the government’s game: according to nonviolent activists, riots will alienate public opinion and mechanically provoke repression; according to advocates of riots, nonviolence is merely symbolic and therefore lacks potency altogether. The point, however, is to investigate not only the respective merits of these two positions, but also how they can coexist. In recent French protests, for example, members of a “pink bloc” did not engage in “violent” acts, but they did not disavow those who did. Rather, they deployed specific tactics to help prevent arrests and maintain solidarity within the entire demonstration.

Governing sometimes means repressing dissent, but mostly, it means managing dissent: sorting out what is tolerable and what is not. Often, governments draw the line at violence, but their definition of violence may differ from activists’ definition. Activists rarely endorse violence as such, even when the government or the media ascribe this to them. Political theorists must therefore not only ask when, if ever, violence is justified, but also question the very process of framing and attributing violence and the disqualifying effect it produces.


The aim of this workshop is therefore to question the political status of violence and non-violence in contemporary social movements. As such, we encourage papers with an eye to existing struggles, past and present. We particularly welcome papers on the following themes:
– How do new political movements challenge the ways in which political theory perceives non/violence?
– How is violence politically constructed? What act is labelled violent? By whom? To what end? How have activists opposed this framing of violence?
– Should non-violence be a requirement for social movements? Under what conditions can non-violence be politically potent?
– Are riots, targeted property destruction and clashes against the police violent? Under what conditions can they be legitimate forms of political action? Is nonviolence an essential component of civil disobedience?
– How can “non-violent” and “violent” activists coexist and cooperate?
– Should we ask the same questions about non/violence in Western democracies and the rest of the world?