A New Revolutionary Strategy

Seventh in a series of  ten posts on MLK.

The Revolution in Revolutionary Strategy

“The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But, the way of nonviolence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.”[1]

King succeeded in creating a popular revolutionary vision — where so many others failed — because he was awake to the revolution in revolutionary practice.

For King this came from the fusion of Christian love and Gandhian non-violent struggle. For the southern civil rights movement, “Nonviolent resistance had emerged as the technique of the movement, while love stood as the regulating ideal.”[2]

King considered nonviolence a powerful, just and superior strategy. Almost all activists in the movement, including King, accepted armed self-defense against terrorist attacks. But, as necessary tactic, not as movement-building strategy.

Non-violent struggle transforms people and their relationships with each other, and it transforms individual and group consciousness as only difficult experience can. Organizing projects that win lasting concessions, rebuilds communities, or brings new leaders into play disrupt existing power relations far more effectively that violence.

Only nonviolence has a long and documentable record of success as strategy for recent US social movements. The urban rebellions of the 60s and 70s were historically important and todays rebellions are important too, but the evidence of their lasting economic benefit or movement building capacity is thin, unless considered as one part of the larger  struggle. Piven and Cloward’s classic Poor Peoples Movements comes closest to presenting not just argument but evidence.

Perhaps the greatest example was the powerful impact urban rebellions had on the already emerging resistance movement of black soldiers and veterans of the Vietnam Era.

Rioting is an understandable reaction to extreme economic exploitation and the escalating violence surging out of the many wings of the penal system. The violence in Ferguson and Baltimore involved a very small percentage of protestors.  If anything the demonstrators showed remarkable restraint.

Absent clear statements or demands by those involved in riots we are left to assume that this was either a desperate symbolic attempt to highlight the issues or collective self-defense. Even if we stretch the almost universally accepted right to self-defense to include community defense, this approach is still primarily defensive and episodic.

Does rioting open up opportunities for others to leverage reform? It seem likely but, corporate media frenzy aside, it is difficult to untangle the effect of riots from the general effect of other disruptive if non-violent protest.

And seemingly spontaneous riots are a far cry from armed struggle.  King argued:

[N]o internal revolution has every succeeded in overthrowing a government by violence unless the government had already lost the allegiance and effective control of its armed forces. Anyone in his right mind knows that this will not happen in the US. In a violent racial situation, the power structure has the local police, the state troopers, the National Guard and finally the army to call on—all of which are predominantly white. Furthermore, few if any violent revolutions have been successful unless the violent minority had the sympathy and support of the nonresistant majority.[3]

If there is a coherent strategy about how organized violence is going to lead to social transformation in our time — to the end of mass incarceration, the so-called war on drugs, the militarization of police forces, extra-judicial killings and discriminatory policing — I have yet to hear or read of it.

Nonviolence better fits the poly-centered social movements we actually have today by limiting the reestablishment of gendered, sexual, racial, ageist and military hierarchies that violent revolutions often replicate.

From this point of view, it is those that go beyond understanding riots to advocating violence as a solution that are the conservatives—using the outmoded ways of war and empire—heedless to the dangers that the culture of war contains. Heedless to the fact that fantasies of “redemptive violence” or “regeneration through violence” returns to the repressed evils of frontier and empire.

Violence is the master’s tactic.

Non-violence on the other hand is prefigurative. It is a political practice that calls to consciousness our connections with all people and to live lives of social and political engagement. And, nonviolence produces coherent strategy and practice.

Yet, King was “no doctrinaire pacifist.”[4]

I could imagine nothing more impractical and disastrous than for any of us…to precipitate a violent confrontation in Mississippi. We had neither the resources nor the techniques to win.… Many Mississippi whites, from the government on down, would enjoy nothing more than for us to turn to violence in order to use this as an excuse to wipe out scores of Negroes in and out of the march….The debate over the question of self-defense was unnecessary since few people suggested that Negroes should not defend themselves as individuals when attached. The question was not whether one should use his gun when his home was attacked, but whether it was tactically wise to use a gun while participating in an organized demonstration. If they lowered the banner of nonviolence, I said, Mississippi injustice would not be exposed and the more issues would be obscured.[5]

Once violence is used or advocated the tactic itself becomes the all-consuming issue and it often produces the very fear and demoralization we struggle to overcome. Violence fails because it plays to our opponents strength. And, it’s an overwhelming position of strength. Realizing this, even advocates for violence sooner or later cycle around to tragic and futile ideas of “revolutionary suicide.” Or like Malcolm X, they recognize the limits. At the second rally of the OAAU Malcolm X said:

[I]f you and I don’t use the ballot and get it, we’re going to be forced to use the bullet.  And if you don’t want to use the bullet. I know you don’t want to use the bullet. So let us try the ballot….And the only way we can try the ballot is to organize and put on a campaign that will create a new climate.[6]


Had Malcolm X lived perhaps he would have created an actual strategy to fill out his provocative call: “by any means necessary.” But, all his known preparations were political: meeting with heads of state in Africa and organizing in the movement and electoral arenas.

Not so very different in the end, both King and Malcolm engaged the existing political reality on the ground.  King accepted what he did not support.  He dug down to the deep causes of violence to craft a strategic approach that made the best of what he saw as a bad situation.

A righteous man has no alternative but to resist such an evil system. If he does not have the courage to resist nonviolently, then he runs the risk of a violent emotional explosion. As much as I deplore violence, there is one evil that is worse than violence, and that’s cowardice. It is still my basic article of faith that social justice can be achieved and democracy advanced only to the degree that there is firm adherence to nonviolent action and resistance in pursuit of social justice. But America will be faced with the ever-present threat of violence, rioting and senseless crime as long as Negroes by the hundreds of thousands…remain smothered by poverty in the midst of an affluent society; as long as Negroes see their freedom endlessly delayed and diminished by the head winds of tokenism and small handouts from the white power structure. No nation can suffer any greater tragedy than to cause millions of its citizens to feel that they have no stake in their own society.[7]

While the US has a long history of terror and violence against african-americans, native people, workers and many others, the relatively recent consciousness — thanks to Ferguson and blacklivesmatter — that the  vast militarized penal system is a primary form of social control has given everyone desiring social change a stake — a stake in a new system. The question: how to get there.

King repeatedly pointed out that violent action will never succeed in attracting the millions of people it takes to create social change. Yet, the social causes of desperate action must be revealed, articulated and addressed.

Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention….constructive social change will bring certain tranquility; evasions will merely encourage turmoil. Negroes hold only one key to the double lock of peaceful change. The other is in the hands of the white community.[8]

By embracing Ghandi’s innovation King avoided the mistake of so many would-be revolutionaries, who — by focusing too narrowly on the conventional politics of violence or their preconceived expectations — missed the actual revolution that was occurring right in front of them.

Next: Corporate Power and Empire


All citations are from, A Testament of Hope unless otherwise noted.

[1] My Trip to The Land of Gandhi, 25

[2] Stride Toward Freedom, 447

[3] Where Do We Go From Here? (SCLS presidential address) 249.

[4] Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, 39

[5] Where Do We Go From Here? 571 See also 589-92, 365.

[6] “The Second Rally of the OAAU” p89 By Any Means Necessary

[7] Playboy interview: Martin Luther King Jr. 360

[8] Where Do We Go From Here?, 568

About Richard Moser

Richard Moser has over 40 years experience as an organizer and activist in the labor, student, peace, and community movements. Moser is the author of "New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent During the Vietnam Era," and co-editor with Van Gosse of "The World the Sixties Made: Politics and Culture in Recent America." Moser lives in Colorado.
This entry was posted in American Culture, Martin Luther King, Organizing Method, Strategy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A New Revolutionary Strategy

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    I hadn’t thought of non-violence as a strategy supporting genuine grass-roots organizing characterized by multiple nodes of a networked organization over top-down hierarchical structures but this makes sense:

    “Nonviolence better fits the poly-centered social movements we actually have today by limiting the reestablishment of gendered, sexual, racial, ageist and military hierarchies that violent revolutions often replicate.”

    There may always be a tendency to replicate hierarchical, command and control power structures in the name of expediency and efficiency — and resisting it another challenge


  2. Pingback: Universal Values Are Revolutionary Values | PopularResistance.Org

  3. Pingback: Universal Values are Revolutionary Values | Revolution Chronicles

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