Passive resistance commonly refers to actions of nonviolent protest or resistance to authority. The central feature is the conscious choice by the actors to abstain from a violent response even in the face of violent aggression. The term came into common use during the independence struggle in India between the 1920s and 1948. It has been used widely by groups who lack formal authority or position and has sometimes been called the “weapon of the weak.”
The term is misleading, however, in that it implies passivity. In fact, passive resistance can be thought of as an active, but nonviolent, mode of struggle in a social conflict. The actions that fall under the term passive resistance include many forms of civil disobedience and noncooperation—such as sit-ins, boycotts, blockades and occupations of buildings, tax refusal, and alternative publications and media. More active forms of passive resistance include strikes, walkouts, protest marches, theatrical protests, and hunger strikes.
Passive resistance is rooted in a relational view of political power that sees the rulers of a community or nation as dependent on at least the acquiescence of those who are ruled. Thus, even a dictator’s power rests to an important extent on some level of cooperation by the population. This view was articulated by Étienne de la Boétie (1530–1563) in the sixteenth century, as well as by John Locke (1632–1704). The premise that governance derives its legitimate authority only from the consent of the governed is the foundational idea of modern democracy.
One of the foremost contemporary scholars of the political perspective of passive resistance is Gene Sharp. Sharp argues that nonviolent struggle may reflect a moral commitment to pacifism by leaders or activists in a movement (Mohandas Gandhi [1869–1948] and Martin Luther King Jr. [1929–1968] are prominent examples), but pacifism is not a necessary condition. Passive resistance can be explicitly calculating, practical, and strategic and used effectively by those with no moral commitment to pacifism. In the long view of history, it is likely that very few practitioners of passive resistance have been moral pacifists. Arguably, the social power wielded through passive resistance also is democratizing, because it disperses power broadly in society. Like moral pacifism, however, nonviolent struggle does not depend on democracy to be used.
Seen in this broad scope, passive resistance has a long and varied history. Techniques of passive resistance are evident in Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata (411 BCE), where the women refuse to have sexual relations with their husbands until the men cease their war making. During the War of Independence (1775–1783) in the United States, colonists refused to obey British demands for stamp taxes or for the billeting of troops. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) famously articulated his call for civil disobedience with his act of tax refusal during the Mexican War in the 1840s. Suffragists held demonstrations in major cities in the United States and Great Britain in the early years of the twentieth century; a few participated in hunger strikes.
Examples of passive resistance are easily found in many societies in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Student protestors occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. Nonviolent movements across Eastern Europe brought down Communist governments in the same year. In 2000 a nonviolent movement in Serbia ended the dictatorship of Slobodan Milošević (1941–2006). Civilians on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have periodically employed the technique. Indigenous peoples forced the collapse of the government in Bolivia in 2005 with protests and work stoppages.
The most important development of the concepts of passive resistance came from Mohandas Gandhi and the Indian campaigns for independence. As a young lawyer in South Africa at the turn of the twentieth century, Gandhi organized Indians to resist discrimination and unequal treatment. Claiming their rights as citizens of the British Empire, they refused to carry passes and held public acts where they burned the government-issued passes. Out of these experiences, Gandhi developed his idea of satyagraha, which is often translated as “soul force” or “truth force.”
One of the key principles of Gandhi’s use of passive resistance was to find opportunities to publicly confront unjust laws or authority. Protestors, or satyagrahis, defied the laws, but sought to maintain a posture that treated the agents of authority with respect and even compassion. Gandhi argued that the means of struggle must be morally compatible with the ends being sought. Protestors often submitted to arrest and even violence, but did not resort to violence themselves. In a protest march to the gates of the saltworks in Dharsana in 1931, for example, protestors willingly walked up to the waiting police, who beat them brutally.
Passive resistance gained a broad public recognition in the United States as the civil rights movement exploded in the 1950s and 1960s. Throughout the movement years, techniques of passive resistance were used both to assert a moral position about rights and equality and to apply economic and political pressure. Martin Luther King Jr. drew on Gandhi and his own Christian tradition to formulate a strategy of nonviolence. Like Gandhi’s satyagrahis, civil rights activists marched peacefully and publicly in Birmingham, Alabama, in Selma, Alabama, and elsewhere. They also accepted upon themselves the costs of their actions, including discomfort, arrest, beatings, and even death.
Nonviolent actions often also exerted economic and political leverage. Boycotts of busses and department stores pressured private business to end their policies of exclusion. Sit-ins at segregated lunch counters disrupted business until owners relented. Defiant demonstrations often led to mass arrests, which encumbered the police and judicial systems. Provocations of the police to brutality gained national and international political sympathy for the movement.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the uses of passive resistance in many conflicts around the world became more overtly strategic and less concerned with the moral character of the tools. Passive resistance, one of many forms of nonviolent action, provides a source of power to those disenfranchised from traditional politics. When used as part of broader strategy, it has contributed to powerful movements for social change.
SEE ALSO Civil Disobedience; Civil Rights; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Gandhi, Mohandas K.; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Mexican-American War; Morality; Protest; Resistance; Thoreau, Henry David; Violence
Ackerman, Peter, and Christopher Kruegler. 1993. Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century. Westport, CT: Praeger.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1958. Stride toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. New York: Harper and Row.
Sharp, Gene. 2005. Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential. Boston: Porter Sargent.
Shridharani, Krishnalal. 1939. War without Violence: A Study of Gandhi’s Method and Its Accomplishment. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
William B. Vogele