Civil resistance is political action that relies on the use of nonviolent resistance by civil groups to challenge a particular power, force, policy or regime. Civil resistance operates through appeals to the adversary, pressure and coercion: it can involve systematic attempts to undermine the adversary's sources of power. Forms of action have included demonstrations, vigils and petitions; strikes, go-slows, boycotts and emigration movements; and sit-ins, occupations, and the creation of parallel institutions of government. Civil resistance movements' motivations for avoiding violence are generally related to context, including a society's values and its experience of war and violence, rather than to any absolute ethical principle. Cases of civil resistance can be found throughout history and in many modern struggles, against both tyrannical rulers and democratically elected governments. The phenomenon of civil resistance is often associated with the advancement of democracy.
Civil resistance is a long-standing and widespread phenomenon in human history. Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash in their book Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present include accounts of many significant historical examples they label civil resistance. These case-studies, both successful and unsuccessful, include:
- Mohandas K. Gandhi’s role in the Indian independence movement in 1917-47
- the US civil rights struggle in the 1960s, led by Martin Luther King Jr.
- aspects of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in 1967-72
- the Revolution of the Carnations in Portugal in 1974-5, supporting the military coup of 25 April 1974
- the Iranian Revolution in 1977–79, before Khomeini’s advent to power in February 1979
- the People Power Revolution in the Philippines in the 1980s that ousted President Marcos
- the campaigns against apartheid in South Africa, especially in 1983-94
- the mass mobilization against authoritarian rule in Pinochet's Chile, 1983–88
- the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in China
- the various movements contributing to the revolutions of 1989 in central and eastern Europe, and to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991
- the campaign against Serbian domination in Kosovo, 1990–98, that was followed by war
- the revolutions in Ukraine in 2004, all of which involved successful resistance against an incumbent government that had refused to acknowledge its defeat in an election and had sought to falsify the election results
- the demonstrations, mainly led by students and monks, in Burma in 2007.
Numerous other campaigns, both successful and unsuccessful, could be included in a longer listing. In 1967 Gene Sharp produced a list of 84 cases. He has followed this with further surveys. In 2013 Maciej Bartkowski authored a long list of cases in the past 200 years, arranged alphabetically by country. 
Effectiveness of civil resistance
It is not easy to devise a method of proving the relative success of different methods of struggle. Often there are problems in identifying a given campaign as successful or otherwise: the answer may depend on the time-frame used, and on necessarily subjective judgments about what constitutes success. In 2008 Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth produced the most thorough and detailed analysis of the rate of success of civil resistance campaigns, as compared to violent resistance campaigns. After looking at over 300 cases of both types of campaign, from 1900 to 2006, they concluded that "nonviolent resistance methods are likely to be more successful than violent methods in achieving strategic objectives." Their article noted particularly that "resistance campaigns that compel loyalty shifts among security forces and civilian bureaucrats are likely to succeed."
Reasons for choosing to use civil resistance
In his chapter on "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence" Martin Luther King gave a notably multi-faceted account of the various considerations, experiences and influences that constituted his "intellectual odyssey to nonviolence". By 1954 this had led to the intellectual conviction that "nonviolent resistance was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their quest for social justice."
In one of her BBC Reith Lectures, first broadcast in July 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy campaigner, stated: "Gandhi’s teachings on non-violent civil resistance and the way in which he had put his theories into practice have become part of the working manual of those who would change authoritarian administrations through peaceful means. I was attracted to the way of non-violence, but not on moral grounds, as some believe. Only on practical political grounds."
Relationship to other forms of power
The experience of civil resistance suggests that it can at least partially replace other forms of power. Some have seen civil resistance as offering, potentially, a complete alternative to power politics. The core vision is of non-violent methods replacing armed force in many or all of its forms.
Several writers, while sharing the vision of civil resistance as progressively overcoming the use of force, have warned against a narrowly instrumental view of non-violent action. For example, Joan V. Bondurant, a specialist on the Gandhian philosophy of conflict, indicated concern about "the symbolic violence of those who engage in conflict with techniques which they, at least, perceive to be nonviolent." She saw Gandhian satyagraha as a form of "creative conflict" and as "contrasted both to violence and to methods not violent or just short of violence".
It is generally difficult in practice to separate out entirely the use of civil resistance and power-political considerations of various kinds. One frequently-encountered aspect of this problem is that regimes facing opposition taking the form of civil resistance often launch verbal attacks on the opposition in terms designed to suggest that civil resistance is simply a front for more sinister forces. It has sometimes been attacked as being planned and directed from abroad, and as intimately connected to terrorism, imperialism, communism etc. A classic case was the Soviet accusation that the 1968 Prague Spring, and the civil resistance after the Soviet-led invasion of August 1968, were the result of Western machinations. Such accusations of sinister power-political involvement are often presented without convincing evidence.
There can be some more plausible connections between civil resistance and other forms of power. Although civil resistance can sometimes be a substitute for other forms of power, it can also operate in conjunction with them. Such conjunction is never problem-free. Michael Randle has identified a core difficulty regarding strategies that seek to combine the use of violent and non-violent methods in the same campaign: "The obvious problem about employing a mixed strategy in the course of an actual struggle is that the dynamics of military and civil resistance are at some levels diametrically opposed to each other." However, the connections between civil resistance and other forms of power are not limited to the idea of a "mixed strategy". They can assume many forms. Eight ways in which civil resistance can in practice relate to other forms of power are identified here, with examples in each case:
- Civil resistance is often a response to changes in constellations of power. Leaders of civil resistance campaigns have often been acutely aware of power-political developments, both domestic and international. In some countries there has been a growth of civil opposition after, and perhaps in part because of, an occupying or colonial state’s internal political turmoil or setbacks in war: for example, this was a key factor in the Finnish struggle of 1898-1905 against Russian control. In other countries the problems faced by their own armed forces, whether against conventional armies or guerrillas, played some part in the development of civil resistance: for example, in the People Power Revolution in the Philippines in 1983-86.
- Civil resistance campaigns frequently lead to a situation of partial stalemate, in which negotiation between civil resisters and those in positions of governmental power is perceived as essential. Hence "round table talks" were critically important in the Indian independence struggle up to 1947, in Solidarity’s campaign in Poland up to 1989, and in Ukraine in 2004.
- The relation between civil resistance and the military coup d'état can be especially multi-faceted. In some cases a civil resistance campaign has been an effective response to a military coup. In other cases a campaign could succeed in its final objective—e.g. the removal of a hated regime—only when there was the reality or the threat of a military coup to bring about the desired change. Thus in the Buddhist crisis in South Vietnam in 1963 a long civil resistance campaign against the government resulted in change only when the South Vietnamese army coup of 1–2 November 1963 toppled President Ngo Dinh Diem. In Egypt in June-July 2013, a civil resistance movement in effect called for a military coup: peaceful demonstrators and a petition supported by millions of signatures demanded the replacement of the elected Muslim Brotherhood government, and provided a degree of revolutionary legitimacy for the army take-over of 3 July 2013. At least one non-violent campaign, the Revolution of the Carnations in Portugal in 1974-5, was in support of a military coup that had already occurred: this campaign helped to steer Portugal in a democratic direction.
- Some non-violent campaigns can be seen as reluctant or unwitting harbingers of violence. For example, if they are perceived as failures, or are repressed with extreme violence, they may be followed by the emergence of groups using armed force and/or by military intervention from outside the territory concerned. This was the case, for example, in Northern Ireland in 1967-72, and in Kosovo in the 1990s. The possibility of such developments can be an inducement to a government to bargain with a non-violent movement before things get out of hand. However, in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 and after, campaigns by civil resistance movements were followed by violent internal conflict and civil war, often with the involvement of external forces: Syria is the most tragic case.
- There have also been some cases of certain uses of force by civil resistance movements, whether against their adversaries, or to maintain internal discipline. For example, on 2 February 2011, in the generally peaceful Egyptian struggle against President Mubarak, some groups among the crowds in Tahrir Square in Cairo did use certain forms of force for a defensive purpose when they were attacked by pro-regime thugs, some of whom were riding on horses and camels. In the subsequent days the crowds in Tahrir Square reverted to using non-violent methods.
- Some civil resistance movements have sought, or welcomed, a measure of armed protection for their activities. Thus in the US civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Freedom Ride of May 1961, having been opposed violently, received armed protection for part of its hazardous journey; and the Selma to Montgomery March of March 1965 only succeeded in reaching Montgomery, Alabama, at the third attempt, when it was protected by troops and federal agents.
- Some campaigns of civil resistance may depend up the existence of militarily defended space. A life-saving example of an effective civil resistance enabling threatened people to reach a defended space occurred with the Rescue of the Danish Jews in 1943 when thousands of Jews were spirited out of German-occupied Denmark and across a narrow stretch of sea (the Sound) to Sweden.
- When leaders of even the most determinedly non-violent movements have come to power in their countries, they have generally accepted the continued existence of armed forces and other more or less conventional security arrangements. For example, in 1991 Václav Havel who had been a leading figure in civil resistance in communist Czechoslovakia from the founding of Charter 77 to the Velvet Revolution of 1989, in his new capacity as President of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic paid tribute to the NATO alliance. On 12 March 1999 the Czech Republic, along with Poland and Hungary, became a member of NATO.
Proposals for defence by civil resistance
The promise of civil resistance as a means of opposing oppressive rule has led to many proposals that countries might rely, in whole or in part, on civil resistance as a means of defence against external attack (for example, invasion) and internal usurpation (for example, coup d'état). Preparations for such resistance are sometimes seen as potentially helping to deter such threats in the first place. Various terms have been used to describe either the policy of relying on such non-military action by a society or social group, or the general phenomenon of sustained country-wide campaigns against outside attack or dictatorial rule. These terms - all near-synonyms - include "defence by civil resistance", "non-violent defence", "civilian defence", "civilian-based defence", and "social defence". For further information and references to some relevant literature, see social defence.
The term "civil resistance": merits and concerns Because of such considerations, the term has been used in this century in many analyses in academic journals.
What exactly are the advantages of the term "civil resistance", as distinct from its near-synonyms "non-violent action" and "non-violent resistance"? All these terms have merits, and refer to largely the same phenomena. Indeed, there is a long history, in many languages, of using a wide variety of terms to describe these phenomena. The term "civil resistance" has been used increasingly for two main reasons:
- It emphasises the positive (civic goals; widespread civil society involvement; and civil as distinct from uncivil conduct) rather than the negative (avoidance of the use of violence).
- It conveys, more effectively perhaps than such terms as "nonviolent resistance", that a movement’s avoidance of violence in pursuit of a particular cause is not necessarily tied to a general belief in "nonviolence" in all circumstances, nor to a philosophy of "Gandhism", but rather arises from the particular values and circumstances of the society concerned.
There have been concerns that the term “civil resistance” might on occasion be misused, or at least stretched in a highly controversial way, to encompass acts of violence. Thus, arising from experience within the anti-globalization movement, one participant-observer has seen “new forms of civil resistance” as being associated with a problematic departure from a previously more widely shared commitment to maintaining non-violent discipline. Because of these concerns, those who have used the term "civil resistance" have tended to emphasise its non-violent character, and to use it in addition to – and not in substitution of – such terms as "non-violent resistance".
- Arab Spring
- Civil disobedience
- Colour revolution
- Dissolution of the Soviet Union
- Nonviolent resistance
- People Power Revolution
- Resistance movements
- Revolutions of 1989
- Social defence
- Tunisian revolution
- 2011 Egyptian Revolution
- Examples of the use of the term "civil resistance" include Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Columbia University Press, New York, 2011; Howard Clark, Civil Resistance in Kosovo, Pluto Press, London, 2000; Sharon Erickson Nepstad, Nonviolent Revolution: Civil Resistance in the Late 20th Century, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011; Michael Randle, Civil Resistance, Fontana, London, 1994; Adam Roberts, Civil Resistance in the East European and Soviet Revolutions, Albert Einstein Institution, Massachusetts, 1991.
- This is abstracted from the longer definition of "civil resistance" in Adam Roberts, Introduction, in Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash (eds.), Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 2-3. See also the short definition in Gene Sharp, Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle: Language of Civil Resistance in Conflicts, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011, p. 87.
- See e.g. the report by Peter Ackerman, Adrian Karatnycky and others, How Freedom is Won. From Civil Resistance to Durable Democracy, Freedom House, New York, 2005 
- Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash (eds.), Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, Oxford University Press, 2009. Includes chapters by specialists on the various movements.
- Gene Sharp, "The Technique of Non-violent Action", in Adam Roberts (ed.), The Strategy of Civilian Defence: Non-violent Resistance to Aggression, Faber, London, 1967, at pp. 98-104.
- See for example his discussion of "Illustrations from the Past" in Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (see article), Porter Sargent, Boston, 1973, pp. 75-97; and his short accounts of numerous cases in Gene Sharp and others, Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential, Porter Sargent, Boston, 2005, pp. 69-356.
- "Appendix: Conflict Summaries", in Maciej J. Bartkowski (ed.), Recovering Nonviolent History: Civil Resistance in Liberation Struggles, Lynne Rienner, Boulder, Colorado, 2013, pp. 355-405.
- Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict”, International Security, vol. 33, no. 1 (Summer 2008), p. 42. ISSN 0162-2889 E-ISSN 1531-4804 . (See also their 2011 book, Why Civil Resistance Works, listed below in the bibliography.)
- Martin Luther King, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, Ballantine Books, New York, 1960, p. 81.
- Aung San Suu Kyi, second BBC Reith Lecture, "Dissent", first broadcast 5 July 2011, transcript available at BBC website.
- Gene Sharp, Social Power and Political Freedom, Porter Sargent, Boston, 1980, xi.
- Joan V. Bondurant, "Creative Conflict and the Limits of Symbolic Violence" in Bondurant (ed.), Conflict: Violence and Nonviolence, Aldine, Chicago, 1971, pp. 121 & 122.
- See for example Roberts and Garton Ash, Civil Resistance and Power Politics, pp. 21-3 (chapter by Roberts), 93 (Kramer) and 386n. (Garton Ash).
- Randle, Civil Resistance, p. 168.
- A pioneering exploration of certain examples of connections between non-violent resistance and other forms of power is in Kurt Schock, Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005, especially at pp. 153-62. A more general discussion of this question is in Adam Roberts, "Introduction", in Roberts and Garton Ash, Civil Resistance and Power Politics, especially at pp. 13-20.
- Schock, Unarmed Insurrections, pp. 154-6.
- Steven Duncan Huxley, Constitutional Insurgency in Finland: Finnish "Passive Resistance" against Russification as a Case of Nonmilitary Struggle in the European Resistance Tradition, SHS, Helsinki, 1990, p. 225, where Jonas Castrén, a key figure in the constitutional insurgency, is cited as emphasizing the central importance of understanding current events in Russia and their importance for the Finnish struggle. "He exclaimed that now was the time for Finns to rise up in mass struggle."
- Amado Mendoza, "‘People Power'" in the Philippines, 1983-86’ in Roberts and Garton Ash, Civil Resistance and Power Politics, pp. 179-96, where he discusses at pp. 186-9 the competitive relationship between the violent and non-violent anti-dictatorship movements.
- These three cases of round table talks are outlined by Judith Brown, Alexander Smolar and Andrew Wilson respectively in Roberts and Garton Ash, Civil Resistance and Power Politics, pp. 47, 55 (India), 136-43 (Poland), and 350-3 (Ukraine).
- Shaplen, Robert (1966). The Lost Revolution: Vietnam 1945-1965. London: Andre Deutsch. pp. 188–212.
- M. Cherif Bassiouni, Egypt Update no. 27, 19 February 2014, paragraphs 8-9 & 18.
- Kenneth Maxwell, ‘Portugal: “The Revolution of the Carnations”, 1974-75’, in Roberts and Garton Ash, Civil Resistance and Power Politics, pp. 144-61.
- These cases of perceived failure of civil resistance being followed by armed campaigns and military intervention are outlined by Richard English and Howard Clark in Roberts and Garton Ash, Civil Resistance and Power Politics, pp. 75-90 (Northern Ireland) and 277-94 (Kosovo).
- International Institute for Strategic Studies, Strategic Survey 2013, London, 2013, pp. 179-84.
- Mustafa Khalili, ‘The two sets of protesters were left to fight it out,’ The Guardian, London, 3 February 2011, provides an eye-witness account of the events of 2 February. Also available at .
- James Peck, Freedom Ride, Grove Press, New York, 1962, p. 107.
- Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965, Viking Press, New York, 1987, p. 279.
- Jacques Semelin, Unarmed Against Hitler: Civilian Resistance in Europe, 1939–1943, Praeger, Westport, Connecticut, 1993, pp. 151–4.
- Václav Havel, address to NATO Council, 21 March 1991, NATO Review, Brussels, April 1991, p. 31.
- Mohandas K. Gandhi, "The Momentous Issue", Young India, 10 November 1921; in Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, electronic edition, vol. 25, pp. 76-8. 
- Mohandas K. Gandhi, letter to P. Kodanda Rao, 10 September 1935; in Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, electronic edition, vol. 67, p. 400.
- Fabien Miard, Mobile Phones as a Tool for Civil Resistance: Case Studies from Serbia and Belarus, DigiActive Research Series, June 2009. 
- For example, by Stephan, Maria J.; Chenoweth, Erica (2008). "Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict". International Security 33 (1): 7–44.
- Conway, Janet (2003). "Civil Resistance and the ‘Diversity of Tactics’ in the Anti-Globalization Movement: Problems of Violence, Silence, and Solidarity in Activist Politics". Osgoode Hall Law Journal 41 (2 & 3): 505–517.
- Bartkowski, Maciej J. (ed.), Recovering Nonviolent History: Civil Resistance in Liberation Struggles, Lynne Rienner, Boulder, Colorado, 2013. ISBN 978-1-58826-895-2.
- Carter, April, Howard Clark and Michael Randle (eds.), A Guide to Civil Resistance: A Bibliography of People Power and Nonviolent Protest, vol. 1, London: Green Print/Merlin Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1-85425-108-4.
- Chenoweth, Erica and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-231-15682-0 (hardback). In August 2012 this book won the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award, given annually by the American Political Science Association for the best book on government, politics, or international affairs published in the US during the previous calendar year.
- Clark, Howard, Civil Resistance in Kosovo, London: Pluto Press, 2000. ISBN 0-7453-1574-7 (hardback).
- Nepstad, Sharon Erickson, Nonviolent Revolution: Civil Resistance in the Late 20th Century, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011. ISBN 978-0-19-977821-8.
- Randle, Michael, Civil Resistance, London: Fontana, 1994. ISBN 0-586-09291-9.
- Roberts, Adam, Civil Resistance in the East European and Soviet Revolutions (PDF available), Cambridge, Mass.: Albert Einstein Institution, 1991. ISBN 1-880813-04-1.
- Roberts, Adam and Timothy Garton Ash (eds.), Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-955201-6 (hardback); ISBN 978-0-19-969145-6 (paperback, 2011, with new Foreword on the Arab Spring). US edition. On Google. Reviews available at Oxford University Research Project on Civil Resistance and Power Politics.
- Sharp, Gene, Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle: Language of Civil Resistance in Conflicts, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011. ISBN 978-0-19-982989-7 (hardback); ISBN 978-0-19-982988-0 (paperback).
- Stephan, Maria J. (ed.), Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization, and Governance in the Middle East, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. ISBN 978-0-230-62141-1 (paperback).
Other works related to the topic
- Ackerman, Peter and Jack DuVall, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, New York: Palgrave, 2000. ISBN 0-312-24050-3 (paperback).
- Ackerman, Peter and Christopher Kruegler, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century, Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1994. ISBN 0-275-93916-2 (paperback).
- Carter, April, People Power and Political Change: Key Issues and Concepts, Routledge, London, 2012. ISBN 978-0-415-58049-6.
- Tim Gee, Counterpower: Making Change Happen, New Internationalist, Oxford, 2011. ISBN 978-1-78026-032-7.
- King, Mary E., A Quiet Revolution: The First Palestinian Intifada and Nonviolent Resistance, New York: Nation Books, 2007. ISBN 1560258020.
- Pearlman, Wendy, Violence, Nonviolence and the Palestinian National Movement, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. ISBN 110700702X.
- Roberts, Adam, ed., The Strategy of Civilian Defence: Non-violent Resistance to Aggression, Faber, London, 1967. (Also published as Civilian Resistance as a National Defense, Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, USA, 1968; and, with a new Introduction on "Czechoslovakia and Civilian Defence", as Civilian Resistance as a National Defence, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, UK, and Baltimore, USA, 1969. ISBN 0-14-021080-6.)
- Schock, Kurt, Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-8166-4193-2.
- Semelin, Jacques, Unarmed Against Hitler: Civilian Resistance in Europe, 1939-1943, Westport: Praeger, 1993. ISBN 0-275-93961-8.
- Semelin, Jacques, La Liberté au Bout des Ondes: Du Coup de Prague à la Chute du Mur de Berlin, Paris: Nouveau Monde, 2009. ISBN 978-2-84736-466-8.
- Semelin, Jacques, Face au Totalitarisme: La Résistance Civile, Brussels: André Versaille, 2011. ISBN 978-2-87495-127-5.
- Sharp, Gene, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973. ISBN 0-87558-068-8. Also in a 3-volume edition. ISBN 0-87558-070-X.
- Sharp, Gene and others, Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential, Porter Sargent, Boston, 2005. ISBN 978-0-87558-161-3.
- Albert Einstein Institution, East Boston, Massachusetts
- Civil resistance website established by the late Howard Clark
- International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), Washington DC
- Jack DuVall, "Civil resistance and the language of power", 19 November 2010 at openDemocracy.net
- Hardy Merriman, The trifecta of civil resistance: unity, planning, discipline, 19 November 2010 at openDemocracy.net
- Oxford University Research Project on Civil Resistance and Power Politics
- Stellan Vinthagen, People power and the new global ferment, 15 November 2010 at openDemocracy.net