Consensus Mahatma Nonviolence Reading

Nonviolent Action and Contentious Politics

Rethinking Nonviolent Action and Contentious Politics: Political Cultures of Nonviolent Opposition in the Indian Independence Movement and Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement


Eastern Washington University



Göteborg University


The emerging synthesis between nonviolent action and contentious politics studies has yielded important insights.  Yet it also reproduces the dichotomy between politics and culture that continues to haunt both fields.  Extending recent work by Jean-Pierre Reed and John Foran, our contribution introduces the political cultures of nonviolent opposition concept to forge a new synthesis, one that recognizes the politics of nonviolent culture and the culture of nonviolent politics.  We apply our theoretical framework to two empirical cases, the Indian independence movement and the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil (known as Movimento Sem Terra or MST), and conclude with ideas for further research on political cultures of nonviolent opposition.



As peaceful social movements continue to exert powerful influence on governments and societies throughout the world, scholars focusing on nonviolent action and contentious politics increasingly realize that they have much to learn from each other.  Informed by previous attempts at synthesis, Kurt Schock’s (2005) Unarmed Insurrections breaks new ground in merging nonviolent action and contentious politics studies..  While cross-fertilization started during the 1990s (Sommer 2000; McAdam and Tarrow 2000; Zunes, Kurtz, and Beth 1999; Ackerman and Kruegler 1994; McCarthy and Kruegler 1993), Schock is the first to develop a comprehensive theoretical framework based on key statements and debates in both fields.  The purpose of our contribution to this volume is to extend—and where necessary revise—Schock’s work, and apply our own approach to the Indian independence movement and the contemporary landless workers movement in Brazil (Movimento Sem Terra or MST).  Although we appreciate the analytical clarity and empirical applicability of Unarmed Insurrections, we also feel it reproduces serious blind spots in nonviolent action and contentious politics studies.  In our view, both areas of research tend to rely on dichotomies between politics and culture, which constrain explorations of intersections between these domains.

Following the perspective of Gene Sharp, the undisputed pioneer in the field, nonviolent action scholars generally base their theories on social-scientific distinctions between rational choice and ethical behavior, objective explanations and subjective interpretations, and especially strategic interests and moral values.  Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action, for instance, states at the outset that he will focus on nonviolent action as a political technique rather than a cultural way of life: “[R]elationships between this technique and ethical problems, and between the technique and belief systems exhorting to nonviolent behavior, are for the most part not discussed here” (Sharp 1973:vi; see also Sharp 1990:2).  His successors generally adopt the same theoretical perspective, treating “pragmatic” and “principled” nonviolent action as separate protest techniques, and politics and culture as separate domains (Schock 2005:36-37; Burrowes 1996:100).  Such binaries lead scholars to underestimate the culture of nonviolent politics, the politics of nonviolent culture, and connections between them.

Although they now pay more attention to cultural processes than in the past, leading contentious politics scholars continue to build their arguments on categorical oppositions, treating culture as a mediator between political institutions and collective action (Williams 1977:99).  Take, for instance, the latest dynamics of contention model developed by Doug McAdam, one of the field’s most influential scholars.  It assigns more importance to cultural mechanisms like identity formation and meaning-making than McAdam’s (1982) old political process model, but still conceives of them as setting the stage for organized political action and governmental reform—not as politically significant in their own right (Goodwin and Jasper 2004:211).  While we recognize that politics and culture should not be conflated, we suggest that students of contentious politics should pay more attention to the interplay between these spheres of social life.

We are not alone in raising this crucial theoretical issue.  Particularly within the contentious politics field, scholars are increasingly contesting the structuralist bias of prominent figures like McAdam and his collaborators Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow, challenging them to take the politics-culture nexus more seriously (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001).  In Rethinking Social Movements, for example, Jeff Goodwin and James Jasper (2004) initiate a debate about the mediation model of culture and include important statements from both sides of the argument (see also V. J. Reed, 2005; Duncombe 2002; Mansbridge and Morris 2001; Buechler 1999; Alvarez, Dagnino, and Escobar1998).  But while their collected volume confirms that the field is in flux, it does not offer a concrete alternative to the theoretical framework favored by researchers like McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly.  In our opinion, the most promising recent work in this regard comes from Jean-Pierre Reed and John Foran (2002), who propose the new concept “political cultures of opposition” as a way to explore the fertile ground between politics and culture.  As sociology of revolution specialists, Reed and Foran are on the margins of the contentious politics field, but we feel that their concept allows us to rethink linkages with nonviolent action scholarship, particularly in the cases of the Indian independence movement and the MST in Brazil.

The following section introduces a new concept for studying nonviolent action and contentious politics, “political cultures of nonviolent opposition,” based on the theoretical efforts of Reed and Foran.  This concept allows for a new synthesis that moves beyond current culture-politics dichotomies and relies on an alternative view of power.  The third section examines the four elements shaping political cultures of nonviolent opposition—emotional experiences, cultural idioms, ideologies, and organizational structures—in the Indian independence movement led by Gandhi and the ongoing MST in Brazil.  It suggests that some nonviolent social movements should be seen as both pragmatic and principled, both political and cultural, rather than either one or the other.  To conclude, we show how the elements discussed in the previous section intersect and connect with specific political cultures of nonviolent opposition, and suggest several areas for further research.


The theoretical framework developed by Reed and Foran (2002) is a solid basis for constructing a new synthesis of nonviolent action and contentious politics studies—a synthesis that does not reproduce the politics-culture binary.  Reed and Foran’s concept of political cultures of opposition is innovative in several ways.  First of all, it avoids the connotations of the conventional political culture concept, popularized by American political scientists during the 1960s, which aimed at categorizing entire societies as “traditional” or “modern,” according to the dominant institutions and values of Western democracies (e.g., Pye and Verba 1965; Almond and Verba 1963).  In contrast, Reed and Foran (2002:338-339) seek to capture “the plurivocal and potentially radical ways of understanding one’s circumstances that various groups within a society sometimes articulate to make sense of the political and economic changes they are living through.”  They emphasize, moreover, that each society—whether Western or non-Western—may contain multiple oppositional ways of understanding.   Secondly, Reed and Foran move beyond the American sociology of culture tradition by incorporating the distinctive insights of scholars like Ann Swidler (1986), William Sewell (1985), Theda Skocpol (1985), and James Scott (1990) into one complex theoretical framework, and by emphasizing the oppositional potential of the amalgam of emotional experiences, cultural idioms, ideologies, and organizational structures

More specifically, Reed and Foran propose that emotional experiences, cultural idioms, ideologies, and organizational structures may come together in the form of political cultures of opposition, which in turn may allow broad coalitions of contentious actors (across class, race, and/or gender identities) to initiate and sustain social movements or revolutions (Reed and Foran 2002:339-340).


Figure 1 displays how, in specific situations, political cultures of opposition draw on, and in turn shape, diverse cultural products and processes.  The solid lines indicate direct relationships, while the dotted lines refer to more indirect linkages between ideologies and emotional experiences as well as between cultural idioms and organizational structures.  All connections with the central element—political cultures of opposition—fluctuate and may be reciprocal (Reed and Foran 2002:340; see also Foran 2005:21).  Reed and Foran apply this framework to the Revolution in Nicaragua that led to the overthrow of the Somoza regime in 1979.  They show, among other things, that the political culture of Sandanismo emerged from and affected a complex combination of cultural influences: (1) an ideological mixture of Marxism and Sandino’s writings; (2) folkloric cultural idioms of social justice, nationalism, democracy, and Christian values; (3) subjective experiences of dictatorship and exploitation as well as emotions of patriotic love, anger at the Somoza regime, and popular solidarity; and (4) organizational structures of the Sandanista Front for National Liberation (FLSN) and a broad multi-class alliance (Reed and Foran 2002:351-360).  This fluid and temporary amalgam of political-cultural forces helped catalyze and propel the Sandanista Revolution during the late-1970s.

            Building on Reed and Foran’s groundbreaking work, we propose the concept of political cultures of nonviolent opposition and suggest that it allows us to synthesize nonviolent action and contentious politics scholarship without perpetuating unnecessary barriers between political and cultural processes.  While we accept the way Reed and Foran perceive political-cultural dynamics, we focus on one particular form of collective struggle: nonviolent opposition.  Before we proceed, therefore, let us clarify what we mean by nonviolence.

Like Sharp (1973:64), most contemporary scholars define nonviolence as the absence of intentional physical harm to other people and nonviolent action as a pragmatic technique for challenging authorities through indirect resistance or direct intervention.  But such “negative nonviolence” only precludes visible and interpersonal violence; it does not target the institutionalized forms of violence that are embedded in a society’s patterns of interaction and cultural practices.  In contrast, we use the term nonviolent opposition to refer to “positive nonviolence” against structures of oppression—such as colonialism, economic exclusion, racism, homophobia, and sexism—that are deeply-rooted in collective ways of life (Galtung 1969:183).

Positive nonviolence combines love for self, other human beings, and communities, on the one hand, with nonviolent action campaigns against unjust laws, authorities, and institutions, on the other.  It requires commitment to moral principles like (1) maintaining courage in the face of repression; (2) seeking reconciliation with, rather than defeat of, opponents; (3) attacking oppressive systems instead of oppressors; (4) accepting self-suffering without causing harm to others; (5) rejecting physical means of violence; and (6) retaining hope that social justice is possible.  But it also promotes contentious interaction in public life according to specific strategic guidelines: (1) carefully research and analyze oppressive situations before organizing protest campaigns; (2) educate state actors and the public about the issues at stake; (3) prepare for the spiritual, mental, and practical challenges of nonviolent activism; (4) keep lines of communication with authorities, bystanders, and fellow activists open; (5) when negotiations fail, engage in nonviolent direct action by applying methods like mass marches, boycotts, and sit-ins; and (6) create alternative institutions and “beloved communities” in which social differences no longer produce structural violence and oppression (Bondurant 1971; King 1967; Shridharani 1939; Gregg 1935).  Contrary to Sharp, therefore, we argue that the transformative potential of nonviolent opposition is greatest when moral principles and instrumental strategies, grassroots community-building and dramatic protest campaigns, as well as cultural resistance and state-centered politics reinforce each other (see V.J. Reed 2005:286-315; Duncombe 2002:5-9; Buechler 2000:163-164).

            Our approach to nonviolence and nonviolent opposition reflects an alternative understanding of power in the modern world.  Social scientists commonly follow Weber in assuming that power derives from the legitimacy to use violence and coercion possessed by those controlling the state, who can “realize their own will in a communal action even against the resistance of others” (Weber,1946:180).  For example, Sharp (1973:7; see also Sharp 1990:3) begins with the ability of individuals or groups to wield power “for political objectives, especially by governmental institutions or by people in opposition to or in support of such institutions.”  He then argues that political power primarily relies on the consent of ordinary citizens, who can always decide to withdraw their obedience and organize effective nonviolent action against tyrannical governments, if they have the necessary will, courage, and knowledge (Sharp 1973:8-16, 25-32, 38).  Contentious politics scholars, in contrast, usually avoid the individualism and voluntarism of Sharp’s view and prefer structural theories of power emphasizing the struggle between dominant political institutions and mobilized protest organizations (see also Lukes 2005; Vinthagen 2005; Foucault 2004; Burrowes 1996; McGuinness 1993; Martin 1989).  But they generally accept Weber’s notion that power is a zero-sum game in which one group’s gain is another group’s loss.  We agree with Seth Kreisberg (1992), however, that power can also be a constructive force for personal growth, dialogue, cooperation, and liberation—a force that benefits individuals, groups, and communities throughout society.  While the Weberian perspective highlights how the dominant have power over the dominated, our perspective emphasizes that positive nonviolence may transform oppressive situations into settings promoting power with, where people with different positions in systems of oppression “can fulfill their needs and develop their capacities not at the expense of others but by acting in concert with others” (Kreisberg 1992:84).  Instead of taking for granted that the struggle for power necessarily involves irreconcilable conflicts between winners (oppressors) and losers (oppressed), therefore, we allow for the possibility that power can expand, enabling people and social groups with diverse national, racial, class, or sexual identities to work together toward common goals.

Drawing on these alternative conceptualizations of nonviolence and power, we argue that political cultures of nonviolent opposition are meaningful when they transform human relationships defined by domination into human relationships defined by love, dialogue, and cooperation.  The purpose of political cultures of nonviolent opposition, moreover, is not merely to take over control of states—and replace one tyranny with another—but to expand the power to promote social justice within states, between states and societies, within societies, and between societies.  To illustrate the theoretical and empirical relevance of our concept, we will apply it to two cases that are usually studied separately.  While the Indian independence movement is a common reference for students of nonviolent action, scholars generally do not consider the contemporary landless workers movement in Brazil (MST) to be a nonviolent social movement.  But although MST activists do not use the same terminology as Gandhian activists, the analysis below demonstrates that their political culture of opposition is no less nonviolent in practice.



In our comparison of political cultures of nonviolent opposition in the Indian independence movement and Brazil’s MST, we do not claim to offer new evidence or comprehensive analysis.  By applying and extending the theoretical framework proposed by Reed and Foran (2002), however, we provide new insights into the practical realities of the politics of nonviolent culture, the culture of nonviolent politics, and intersections between them.  For each social movement, we will briefly illustrate how under certain circumstances emotional experiences, cultural idioms, ideologies, and organizational structures came together to produce a political culture of nonviolent opposition (see also Foran 2005:18-24).  As indicated in figure 1, linkages between emotional experiences and cultural idioms, and between ideologies and organizational structures, were more direct and visible than those between emotional experiences and ideologies, and between organizational structures and cultural idioms.  Each element’s connection to the political culture of nonviolent opposition, moreoever, was immediate and explicit.  We emphasize, though, that the evolving relationships between elements—not the nature of each element in itself—and the ever-changing social contexts of these relationships enabled the formation of political cultures of nonviolent opposition.  How actors actually constructed such relationships and responded to their social contexts was unpredictable and partly depended on their creativity and effort.  We now turn to an empirical examination of these causal dynamics in our two cases.


Emotional experiences

During the Indian independence movement, which grew into a nationwide phenomenon after World War I, the Indian population experienced the structural oppression of colonialism on a daily basis.  But there was one transformative event—the massacre in Amritsar—that drew widespread public attention to the underlying brutality of British rule, inciting emotions of righteous anger and disgust at the imperial government among men and women from diverse religions, ethnic groups, and castes (Sewell 1996).  On April 13, 1919, British General Dyer, who had recently taken over military command in Amritsar, ordered his soldiers to open fire on a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, who had gathered in the park of Jallianwala Bagh to express support for the Anti-Rowlatt Bill campaign led by Gandhi, which opposed restrictions on civil liberties (Fein 1977:24-30; Furneaux 1963:33-47).  Dyer told his troops to aim at the areas where most people had congregated and particularly at the demonstrators who were desperately trying to climb over the walls surrounding the park.  The firing lasted for about 6 minutes, killing hundreds of adults and children—mostly from gunshot wounds in the back—and injuring more than 1200.  The general refused to arrange for medical assistance after the massacre and later declared that he wanted to send a moral message to all Indian nationalists and show them that resistance against the British Empire was seditious and futile (Draper 1985:155).

After this horrific event, the British Raj tried to contain the negative publicity in India and abroad by appointing Lord Hunter to lead a committee to investigate the matter.  But to prevent a cover-up, Indian nationalists organized their own committee, with Gandhi as a prominent member, and published their own report.  The Hunter Committee’s report resulted in Dyer’s early retirement, but it did not accuse him or other Punjab authorities of criminal misconduct (Fein 1977:184).  The report of the Indian National Congress, in contrast, was a harsh indictment of General Dyer, the Punjabi government, and the British Viceroy.  Based on verbal evidence provided by authorities, interviews with 1,700 witnesses, and dramatic photographs of the victims, it condemned the general for his “calculated piece of inhumanity towards utterly innocent and unarmed men, including children” and argued that the Viceroy “clothed the officials [in Punjab] with indemnity in indecent haste” (Draper 1985:201-202).

The emotional impact of the Amritsar massacre, the Hunter Committee’s failure to punish responsible parties, and the independent report by Indian nationalists on the political consciousness of the Indian population was dramatic, widespread, and lasting.  In response to their feelings of anger and fear, people who had previously remained on the sidelines now joined the Indian independence movement in the hope of building a less oppressive society.  Nationalist leaders who had earlier called for political reforms and dominion status now demanded complete autonomy from the British Empire.  Motivated by indignation, Gandhi himself—like other prominent figures in India—publicly renounced his loyalty to the British Empire, returned the medals he had received for his contributions during World War I, and fully committed to the struggle to end British rule in India (Chabot 2003:50; Andrews 1930:230).

            The MST in Brazil fights structural oppression caused by economic marginalization, agrarian modernization, unequal distribution of land, and neoliberal globalization rather than colonialism.  As with the Indian independence movement, however, there is a transformative event in the MST’s history that has had a powerful influence on activists’ emotional experiences of social injustice and on the expansion of the social movement.  On April 17, 1996, 1,500 MST activists were blocking a highway in the state of Pará, near Eldorado dos Carajas, to challenge the government’s refusal to settle families occupying land on the Macaxeira plantation.  Late in the afternoon, 155 military police troops arrived at the site and surrounded the demonstrators.  Then, around 4:30 pm, they began firing on the unarmed crowd of men, women, and children with machine guns and rifles.  The MST activists tried to run away, but by the time the shooting stopped hundreds of bodies lay on the road, with 19 dead and 57 seriously injured.  The local media later quoted Mario Collares Pantoja, the military police’s commander on that day, as saying: “Mission complete.  Nobody saw anything” (Branford and Rocha 2002:142).  But the commander was not aware that someone had captured most of the violence on video camera.  This footage later appeared on television and caused a public outcry in Brazil and abroad.  Among other things, it showed that at least 10 of the dead activists had been executed with bullets in the head and neck, while 7 others had been killed with a machete.  Several days later, moreover, a witness testified that local landowners had bribed the police to kill prominent MST leaders and end the protest campaign (Branford and Rocha 2002:139-147; Wright and Wolford 2003:208).

            In response to the massacre of Eldorado de Carajás, the outrage of Brazilian citizens, and pressure by international human rights organizations, president Cardoso appeared on Brazilian television, calling for punishment of those involved and allowing the families on the Macaxeira estate to settle and set up the Formosa camp.  But the federal government had little influence on state authorities in Pará, who continued to defend the position of the landowners and refused to assist survivors of the massacre.  Initially, none of the landowners or military police officers involved faced legal repercussions.  An internal investigation in 1996 by the Pará state police found the 155 troops innocent, while a jury acquitted commander Pantoja and his superiors for lack of evidence in 1999 (Branford and Rocha 2002:145-147).  This decision was overturned, however, and in 2002 two of the responsible police officers received long jail terms (Wright and Wolford 2003:209).

At first, the moral shock (Jasper and Poulsen 1995) of the Eldorado de Carajás tragedy made MST activists sad and fearful of more brutal repression by military police troops and paramilitary forces hired by landowners.  But, buoyed by growing support for landless workers and the MST throughout Brazil, they translated their anger and anxiety into greater commitment to their struggle for land occupations, agrarian reform, and social justice than before (Branford and Rocha 2002:144-147).  Since 1996, MST activists have commemorated the anniversary of the massacre of Eldorado de Carajás and constructed several monuments to the memory of those who lost their lives (Wright and Wolford 2003;209).  The emotional resonance of this transformative event remains a powerful force for the MST, as it continues to expand its activities and networks both within and outside of Brazil.


Cultural idioms

To channel and tap into popular emotions, participants in the Indian independence movement invoked folkloric language from India’s past.  As the primary symbolic and political leader, Gandhi was particularly important in selecting and reinventing a broad range of Indian traditions with relevance for the struggle against British rule.  Here we will just highlight four significant Hindu terms that Gandhi popularized and reinterpreted to draw upon and radicalize existing principles, beliefs, practices, values, and narratives.  The first term, swadeshi, refers to a traditional way of life based on economic self-reliance, local production, and fulfillment of basic human needs.  According to Gandhi, Western industrialization and modernization were fundamentally flawed, because they encouraged people to focus on selfish interests and widened the gap between rich and poor.  With the familiar notion of swadeshi, he suggested that the rural village should once again become central in Indian society, because it would provide the largest proportion of the population—the wealthy as well as the destitute—with moral purpose, self-discipline, and means of survival (Hardiman 2003:77-78; Terchek 1998:112-114; Fox 1989:46-47, 54-59).  Without widespread access to employment and necessary material resources, the Indian independence movement would fail to bring liberation for the most oppressed people in the country.

            The second term, sarvodaya, emphasized commitment to serving the poor and marginalized—not just oneself or one’s family—as a way to promote public welfare.  To put this traditional Hindu ideal into practice, Gandhi developed a social reform program that called on activists in the Indian independence movement to work toward stimulating Hindu-Muslim unity; fighting poverty, disease, and illiteracy; ending untouchability and the caste system; and improving the conditions of women.  He devoted his life to such community-building activities and made clear that ending British rule would be meaningless without the inclusion and autonomy of all Indian citizens (Nojeim 2004:110-119; Fox 1989:42-44).  The third term, aparigraha, reflected the common belief in Hinduism and other religions that the desire to own ever more property and material things was sinful and eventually produced violence.  For Gandhi, leading a simple life based on autonomy, self-control, discipline, and hard work was the best way to prepare for the mental, physical, and spiritual challenges faced by participants in the struggle for national independence (Terchek 1998:40-42; Fox 1989:44-45).  This meant that owners of land and capital should use their wealth for the benefit of society and provide for the social welfare of their workers (Hardiman 2003:83-84).  It also implied that both privileged and poor Indian activists had to learn how to overcome earthly desires—for prosperity, technology, food, sex, or glory—before they could contribute positively to the Indian independence movement (Nojeim 2004:107-110).

            The symbol that synthesized these traditional ideas, and captured their practical significance, was khadi or hand-spinning.  Gandhi argued that modern technology only contributes to social welfare when it allows the majority of people to work, meet basic human needs, and participate in decisions concerning labor conditions.  Most Indians living under colonial rule, however, did not experience the benefits of the industrial machinery introduced by the British.  Especially in the countryside, the number of unemployed and destitute was staggering, which undermined the nation’s sense of hope and community spirit.  Gandhi felt that promoting khadi, a typically Indian production process, would allow the poor Indian masses to regain their sense of pride, take control of their material welfare, and help build a new society based on the autonomy of ordinary people (Terchek 1998:120-123).  He initiated a spinning campaign in 1919 and arranged for the distribution of spinning wheels throughout the country.  The spinning wheel later appeared on nationalist flags, while white homespun clothing (including the “Gandhi cap”) became the uniform of upper-caste as well as untouchable activists (Hardiman 2003:78-79; Tarlo 1996).  Thus, Gandhi and other Indian nationalists adopted and revised cultural idioms like swadeshi, sarvodaya, and aparigraha, as well as traditional production processes like khadi, with the purpose of politicizing the Indian population and making the Indian independence movement as inclusive as possible.

            The MST does not have a towering figure like Gandhi to identify and reinterpret the folkloric idioms with significance for its social movement.  It invokes traditional principles through a more collective process guided by numerous leaders.  In addition, whereas Gandhi drew on complex philosophical concepts, the MST primarily uses collective rituals called mística to express difficult ideas and tell painful stories with simple yet powerful symbols.  Mística (or mysticism) originates in Liberation Theology, a Christian movement advocating social justice for the poor that emerged throughout Latin America during the 1960s, and helps MST activists build on legacies of past struggles, sustain motivation for current efforts, and anticipate a brighter future (Wright and Wolford 2003:310-311; Carter 2003; Branford and Rocha 2002: Lowy 2001; Berryman 1987).  The main forms of mística are songs, slogans, dances, theatrical reenactments, and waving of the MST flag, which are recurring features of everyday life in MST’s land occupations, camps, and settlements as well as during dramatic MST gatherings, marches, and campaigns.  Mística serves two important symbolic purposes.  First, the collective performance of MST rituals confirms age-old values of the peasantry’s way of life: discipline, responsibility, sacrifice, conviction, perseverance, humility, and honesty (Wright and Wolford 2003:311).  And second, mysticism is crucial for the construction and affirmation of MST’s collective identity, encouraging MST activists to continue their social movement against structural oppression of landless workers and for sustainable agriculture (Branford and Rocha 2002:245-251).  As O Jornal Sem Terra, the MST’s newspaper, indicates: “the more that the masses attach themselves to their symbols, leaders and organization, the more they fight, the more they mobilize and the more they organize themselves” (Wright and Wolford 2003:311).  Thus, mística practices not only tap into existing cultural idioms that resonate among landless peasants, but also ensure that religious and historical references stimulate MST activists to engage in radical cultural and political action.

            Although mística symbols and rituals strongly influence the emotional experiences of participants, they are not spontaneous or impulsive.  In 1988, MST activists recognized the need for an oppositional collective identity to sustain the confidence of landless families occupying unused Brazilian farmland and building camps in the face of violent repression.  They held a meeting to discuss how to make the MST’s image more militant.  At the end, the landless families selected a new repertoire of MST symbols: a red flag, a red baseball cap, and a red t-shirt, all imprinted with a map of Brazil and two peasant activists.  And later, they composed new songs and slogans that affirmed their pride as landless workers and MST activists, and emphasized their importance for Brazilian society.  Instead of “Without Land Reform, There Will Be No Democracy,” therefore, they started using more confrontational slogans like “Occupy, Produce, and Resist!” and “Land Reform: A Fight for All!”  The way MST activists use these new symbols during mística rituals is also becoming more defiant (Branford and Rocha 2002:250-251).  In short, mística is an important weapon for politicizing landless peasants, communicating messages, organizing land occupations, and mobilizing large-scale campaigns.



Gandhi’s views on Indian autonomy, truthful ends, and nonviolent means formed the ideological foundation of the Indian independence movement.  In Hind Swaraj, his most important text on national liberation, Gandhi (1938) challenged the notion that material prosperity and technological progress were the driving forces of civilization.  He argued that, in fact, modern inventions like the railways enabled the British Empire to colonize India and caused famines, diseases, and religious conflicts.  Gandhi’s definition of civilization, in contrast, stressed the moral and spiritual values of civilization and suggested that, according to these standards, traditional India was civilized and benevolent while modern Britain was uncivilized and evil.  His idea of the good life emphasized restraints on material desires, skepticism toward new technology, and cooperation rather than competition (Hardiman 2003:69).  Contrary to extremist Indian nationalists, who favored violent methods to end British rule and capture control of the state, Gandhi stressed that India could only become truly free if it rid itself of internal oppression and poverty as well as imperial domination.  In his eyes, an independent India governed by an authoritian Indian elite and political system based on self-interest would be just as tyrannical as the current British elite and political system.  For Gandhi, meaningful swaraj (national liberation) was only possible if Indians from all castes used nonviolent means to achieve truthful ends, both in everyday life and dramatic protest campaigns (Nojeim 2004:101-105; Chabot, 2003:43-44; Terchek 1998:140-142).

            The concept of satyagraha represented Gandhi’s theory for nonviolent opposition to imperialism and other oppressive structures.  To distinguish his approach from Western passive resistance, Gandhi (1928:105-106) coined satyagraha and translated it as “the Force which is born of Truth and Love” or truth force.  The practitioner of satyagraha believed that truth reflects every person’s unique sense of dignity, morality, and autonomy, and that denials of such truth by dominant people or institutions must be resisted actively, nonviolently, and publicly.  According to a satyagrahi, fundamental injustice to anyone affected everyone, because all human beings were interrelated and therefore partly responsible for oppressive practices in their homes, communities, and societies.  Gandhi asserted that satyagraha was a moral weapon that all human beings—young and old, rich and poor, men and women, highly-educated and illiterate, powerful and powerless—could apply in all domains of social life, as long as they developed the courage and strength to avoid violence in word and deed (Vinthagen 2005: 319-384).    Nonviolent action, from this perspective, was more than a pragmatic technique for achieving peaceful social change; it was also a way of life for transforming interpersonal relationships—for creating power with interactions based on love, dialogue, and cooperation—with likeminded people as well as opponents (Terchek 1998:183).  The best way to convert the worldview and behavior of opponents, moreover, was through voluntary self-suffering, which not only affirmed the Gandhian activist’s autonomy and self-confidence in taking a stand against structural oppression, but also appealed to an opponent’s mind, heart, and soul (Terchek 1998:180-184).  In practice, satyagraha involved the same moral principles and strategic guidelines we referred to earlier in our discussion of positive nonviolence.

            Gandhi adopted and revised ahimsa, a familiar principle in Hindu philosophy, to clarify his understanding of nonviolence and love.  For him, ahimsa meant more than just the absence of harm to other (negative nonviolence); it was an active and liberating force that “is hurt by every evil though, by undue haste, by lying, by hatred, by wishing ill of anybody” (Terchek 1998:186).  Ahimsa, in other words, made virtuous social life possible and relied on a conception of love that stressed basic respect for all human beings—for friends and family as well as for enemies—rather than intimacy, sentimentality, or desire.  Although nobody was able to attain such universal love for self and others in reality, Gandhi urged people to devote their time and energy to the search for perfection.  His expansive view of love was spiritual and moral as well as political.  It did not deny conflicts over distribution of resources or recognition of differences, but sought to create political relationships characterized by constructive dialogue and cooperation with others rather than by self-interest and domination (Vinthagen 2005: 215-244; Chabot 2003: 23-28).  While Gandhi acknowledged the significance of reason for ahimsa, he emphasized emotional qualities like humility, openness, mutuality, compassion, and love.  And while he called on fellow activists to translate their own glimpses of truth into action, he believed that everyone’s truth was partial and deserved equal respect (Terchek 1998:185-189).  Thus, each of the three major facets of Gandhian ideology—swaraj, satyagraha, and ahimsa—stressed that transforming fear and submission into courage and nonviolent opposition involved constant struggles on the part of individuals, families, communities, and societies.

            The MST’s ideology is founded on praxis: when landless people participate in land occupations, they develop political consciousness and oppositional worldviews, which in turn catalyze further action against oppression.  MST activists therefore prefer to synthesize practical insights of diverse thinkers rather than follow entire schools of thought (Branford and Rocha 2002:65-67; Stedile 2002).  In general, though, they draw on Marxist theories for structural analysis of class struggle, agrarian reform, and global capitalism, and on Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy to motivate and teach landless people to take charge of their own liberation struggles.  With its pluralist and practice-oriented mixture of ideologies, the MST seeks to encourage oppressed workers in Brazil and other parts of the world to challenge current agricultural production and land distribution processes in countries with neoliberal states and societies.

            MST’s land occupations in Brazil bring class struggles between capital and labor to the surface and demonstrate the practical relevance of Marxist ideology.  Landowners, particularly those belonging to the Rural Democratic Union (UDR), argue that private ownership of the means of agricultural production and capitalist distribution of wealth stimulates modernization, economic growth, and Brazilian competitiveness in the global marketplace.  MST activists, in contrast, point to the fact that the extreme land concentration associated with capitalist agriculture has made Brazil the most unequal society on earth, despite its abundance of fertile soil (Wright and Wolford 2003:xvi).  They believe that the most oppressed people in Brazil, landless workers, need to join forces and promote an alternative view of agricultural production, based on cooperative relations among workers, equal distribution of land, and sustainable forms of agriculture.  The MST’s radical ideas about agrarian reform are clearly against the social and economic interests of capitalist landowners, who have responded with violent repression and anti-MST media campaigns.  In addition to Brazilian landowners, however, the MST also takes on neoliberalism in Brazil’s federal government (including in President Lula’s current administration) and the global system as a whole (Martins 2003).  As such, many contemporary Marxists agree that the MST is among the most revolutionary movements in the world today (Wright and Wolford 2003:307-315; Veltmeyer and Petras 2002).

            The other major ideological influence on the MST, Freirean pedagogy, builds on a Marxist view of structural inequalities and class struggle, but focuses on developing political consciousness and agency among the oppressed through education.  Freire’s philosophy stresses particular forms of dialogue, cooperation, and love aimed at transforming persons and communities, both in school and wider society (Freire 1993).  Instead of dominating students and treating them as passive receivers of knowledge, Freirean educators create classrooms and learning communities where the relationship between teachers and students is defined by mutual reflection, communication, and participation among active subjects studying their social worlds.  By negotiating power and carving out spaces for collaboration, teachers encourage students to share experiences of oppression, develop strategies for liberation, and engage in collective struggles for social justice (Darder 2002:204; McLaren 2000:148-160).

For Freire (1993:70-71), love of humanity is the driving force enabling oppositional dialogue and cooperation between teachers and students, and between revolutionary leaders and the oppressed, because it motivates people to value and learn from differences instead of obliterating them.  Unlike sentimental love, which either ignores or romanticizes differences between self and other, Freire’s conception of love involves two-way interaction between unique and interdependent selves, who respect each other’s differences and forge “unity in diversity” to achieve personal and political emancipation (McLaren 2000:171).  Practitioners of this kind of love challenge oppression between (or within) persons and communities without “objectifying, dehumanizing, or demonizing those who oppose [them]” (Freire 1997:63; see also Darder 2002:105).  Although Freire uses distinct language, his views on love closely resemble Gandhi’s notion of ahimsa.

            MST’s ideological framework primarily serves as a practical map for action and therefore frequently changes in response to new circumstances (Veltmeyer and Petras, 2002).  MST activists refer to Marxist ideas to explain connections between capitalism, landlessness, and agricultural exploitation, and to understand the need for political struggle to achieve structural transformation.  Yet they generally believe that violent revolution would be counterproductive in the contemporary Brazilian context (Branford and Rocha 2002:66).  Freire’s understanding of love is more directly relevant in the current situation.  As various MST intellectuals emphasize, love of humanity and nature motivates people to participate in mass direct action campaigns and social projects aimed at developing alternative production methods, educational institutions, gender relations, communication channels, cultural works, health care facilities, human rights laws, and international relations (Friends of the MST (FMST); Landless Voices).

The MST specifies its love ethic on a poster entitled “Our Commitments to Land and Life,” and prominently displayed in offices, settlements, encampments throughout Brazil.  The poster highlights that all human beings and forms of life are precious and announces the following principles:

1)      To love and preserve land and creatures of nature

2)      To improve our understanding of nature and agriculture

3)      To produce food and wipe out hunger. To avoid monocultures and the use of agricultural poisons

4)      To preserve living plants and to reforest new areas

5)      To care for springs, rivers, ponds, and lakes.  To struggle against the privatization of water

6)      To beautify the settlements and communities, planting flowers, medical plants, vegetables,and trees

7)      To adequately handle wast and combat any practice that will contaminate or abuse the environment

8)      To practice solidarity and fight injustices and aggression toward people, communities, or nature

9)      To struggle against land concentration so that all may have land, bread, education, and freedom

10)  To never sell the land that we have attained.  Land is an absolute good for future generations (FMST).

While landless workers obviously pay more attention to the natural environment than Freire, their principles similarly rely on love as the main source of human liberation.  One concrete example of how the MST applies its first principle—“To love and preserve land and creatures of nature”—is BioNatur, an organic seed producer introduced by MST farmers in 1997.  BioNatur provides agricultural workers with practical alternatives to the chemical methods of agricultural corporations, allowing them to translate their ideological commitments into practice and support the broader movement for agrarian reform and social justice (FMST; Branford 2001).


Organizational structures

The organizational structures and oppositional networks of the Indian independence movement shaped activists’ everyday life as well as public campaigns.  On the one hand, Gandhi founded several ashrams—small, self-sufficient communities—to prepare residents for the spiritual discipline and cooperative habits required to practice satyagraha.  He also drafted a Constructive Program for improving social conditions in other urban and rural communities throughout India.  On the other hand, for major protest events against British rule, Gandhi and fellow movement leaders forged strategic alliances among diverse associations in various parts of the country, and prepared them for the spiritual and practical challenges of nonviolent direct action.

Gandhi preferred to locate ashrams in the countryside, because he believed that leading a simple rural life allowed people to discover their truth force and learn how to implement it in the wider struggle for national liberation.  Anyone could join a Gandhian ashram—regardless of gender, age, religion, nationality, or caste—as long as the new member committed to strict guidelines for how to think, speak, and act nonviolently.  Ashram residents translated these rules into practice by building their own houses and facilities; including untouchables as equal members of their community; running their own co-ed schools for children from multiple backgrounds; producing their own clothing, sandals, and food; and coming together to eat, work, learn, and meet at regular times each day (Nojeim 2004:119-121; Iyer 2000:75, 299; Gandhi 1951:192-196, 223-225).

            To confront the large number of social problems in India’s overcrowded cities and poor villages, Gandhi outlined a national Constructive Program, founded on the cultural idioms discussed earlier.  The Constructive Program focused on grassroots issues facing the most oppressed individuals and groups and implied “bottom-up” transformation of Indian society.  Its main points included: communal unity among Hindus and Muslims, ending untouchability, avoiding intoxicants, improving health and sanitation, developing literacy and adult education programs, decentralizing economic production, promoting women’s rights, preventing absolute poverty and famines, and especially popularizing hand-spinning.  For Gandhi, such social and cultural work was crucial for the Indian independence movement, because it allowed the Indian population to build alternative social institutions and cultural ways of life before the end of British rule, infusing nonviolent direct action campaigns against the colonial government with positive content (Bondurant 1971:180-181; Gandhi 1945).  “[The] handling of civil disobedience without the Constructive Programme,” as Gandhi once remarked, “[is] like a paralyzed hand attempting to lift a spoon” (Iyer 2000:307).  He also used the Constructive Program to convince leaders of the Indian National Congress and other governmental institutions to dedicate themselves to serving—rather than merely representing—their constituency, and to engaging in mutual dialogue and cooperation with the oppressed toward the common goals of autonomy and social justice (Terchek 1998:164).  Thus, the ashrams and Constructive Program represented the community-building dimension and institutional basis of the Indian independence movement, which enabled activists to struggle for liberation during as well as before and after confrontations with the British Raj.

The famous Salt March campaign of 1930-1931 illustrated the organizational preparations and alliances involved in nonviolent direct action (Dalton 1993; Sharp 1960).  After being appointed by the Indian National Congress to lead a mass civil disobedience campaign in 1929, Gandhi drafted specific demands of the British Viceroy and published specific rules for individual and collective satyagraha, emphasizing that participants should either engage in civil disobedience, contribute to constructive work, or be in prison (Weber 1997:63-64).  Next, he decided that the campaign would focus on the British tax on salt, a basic necessity for the poor in India, as a powerful symbol of unjust rule (Weber 1997:84).   Having selected the target of nonviolent direct action, Gandhi outlined the goals of the Salt March: it was to be a spiritual pilgrimage to dramatize the issue for diverse groups of Indians and invite them to join a nonviolent revolution against the British Raj (Weber 1997:88).

            After identifying the target and purpose of the Salt March, Gandhi chose to have his most committed and disciplined ashram residents initiate the event.  Shortly before the starting date, he wrote an ultimatum letter to the British Viceroy and picked 81 activists for the first group of marchers, who received special instructions on what to do and how to behave during their journey to the Dandi coast (Weber 1997:109).  In addition, Gandhi appointed local leaders to prepare people and grassroots associations in towns along the route of the march and called on local students to educate residents and build the necessary facilities at rest areas (Weber 1997:110-113).  The Indian National Congress also got involved: it sent out a bulletin with Gandhi’s letter to the Viceroy and rules for participation, while provincial committees got ready to take over leadership in their districts when Gandhi got arrested.  And finally, with various local and regional networks prepared for large-scale mobilization, Gandhi published detailed plans for the people and villages participating in the Salt March and the nationwide civil disobedience campaign that would follow (Weber 1997:116-124).  In short, Gandhi wanted leaders and other participants in the Salt March campaign to apply the same guidelines and values as in his ashrams and the Constructive Program, but now in the form of large-scale and highly-visible direct action against the state.

            Land occupations, camps, and settlements shape the organizational structures, everyday dynamics, and public campaigns of the MST.  While each land occupation is unique, it has generally followed a similar pattern since the MST emerged in 1984.  First, a group of MST activists (known as militantes) go into a region to talk with poor landless people and try to persuade them to invade unproductive land and build their own agricultural community.  The militantes prepare the landless people for the challenges of camp life and teach them MST songs and slogans.  After recruiting a sufficient number of landless individuals and families, militantes help them gather the necessary resources—such as plastic for the tents, farming equipment, and food supplies—and select an area with water and potentially fertile soil.  Then they hold a meeting to discuss plans for the occupation and finally, in the middle of the night, everyone gets in buses taking them to the site.  If the landless people arrive at their destination without being obstructed or repressed by security guards, they bring their supplies to the site, clear an area for black plastic tents, set up camp, hold their first assembly, and celebrate by raising the MST flag and performing mística.  By morning, the camp has been established and the public conflict begins: local media cover the occupation, the landowner demands that authorities evict the families, and MST lawyers argue that the occupied land was previously unproductive and therefore unconstitutional.  The MST squatters succeed when the National Institution for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) inspects the land and decides to expropriate it; their occupation fails when the landowner persuades local authorities to evict them (Branford and Rocha 2002:68-88; Stédile 2002:5-6).

            If the MST families win the right to the land, they turn their temporary camp into a permanent settlement and focus on agricultural production and community-building.  To instill discipline among all settlers (who often include alcoholics, drug addicts, people from urban slums, petty criminals, and so forth) and establish a communal routine, the initial rules of camp life are often strict and rigorously enforced.  To remain in the camp, residents have to wake up early to go to the morning assembly, participate in numerous mística activities, join commissions and participate in decision-making, prepare for violent confrontations with landowners or police, perform daily tasks and work the land, abstain from alcohol and drugs, and avoid physical abuse of spouse and children (Branford and Rocha 2002:87).  In settlements, however, rules are less stringent, allowing residents more freedom to organize communities, run meetings, make decisions, and develop sustainable methods of collective production (Branford and Rocha 2002:95).  The typical MST settlement consists of agricultural and service cooperatives with community members sharing resources, buying materials in bulk, marketing crops collectively, and contributing 2% of profits to the national MST.  Settlers also work together in areas like farming, childcare, cooking, health care, cultural programs, environmental projects, media, and education (Frank 2002:4; FMST).  The division of labor in settlements, moreover, is not based on gender, race, or class: men and women from various social backgrounds work side by side in all areas of production and service.  Although residents often remain poor in terms of standard economic figures, their overall quality of life and sense of dignity generally improves significantly (Wright and Wolford 2003:264-274; Frank 2002:5).

To make collective decisions, settlers develop local governance structures, which in turn form the basis of the MST’s regional and national organization.  On the first day after occupying land, they elect a camp coordinator, who brings order to daily camp life by dividing people into cells.  Each cell then elects two representatives to the camp’s coordinating committee, which forms commissions that take care of the settlement’s basic needs.  In these commissions, people from different areas get to know each other, learn how to cooperate, and participate in decision-making.  Some local settlers and activists join regional and provincial meetings, where they discuss collective challenges and elect regional leaders.  Every two years, moreover, members from across the country go to national meetings, where they elect a national commission, with representatives from each major region in Brazil.  And about every five years, the MST holds a massive nationwide congress, with over 10,000 delegates, to debate the future direction of the movement and decide on a new slogan for the next five years.  (The current slogan “Land Reform: For a Brazil Without Large Plantations!” captures the national strategy of the MST since 2000.  MST delegates will select a new slogan in November 2006.)  This organizational framework includes all levels of the MST in the democratic process and allows both leaders and grassroots activists to contribute to decisions affecting people’s everyday lives (Branford and Rocha 2002:251-254; Stédile 2002:7).  Besides its domestic efforts, the MST has also become an important member of Via Campesina (an international peasant movement), the Global Justice Movement that emerged during the Battle of Seattle in 1999, and the yearly World Social Forum where Global Justice Movement activists meet to discuss their struggles against neoliberalism (FMST).

            With its Agrarian Reform program, the MST seeks to spread the values and practices of its settlers to other communities, both within and outside of Brazil.  The neoliberal economic model promoted by Brazilian and foreign capitalist institutions favors large-scale farming, liberalization of agricultural production, and private landownership, even though these policies exacerbate inequalities in land distribution (Carter 2005:6).  In contrast, the MST—together with progressive religious leaders and organizations like the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), the National Confederation of Agricultural Workers (CONTAG), and the Brazilian Agrarian Reform Association (ABRA)—proposes an Agrarian Reform program that encourages community ownership of property and cooperative relations among rural workers; opposes excessive unproductive property and land speculation; calls for government assistance and price controls to prevent hunger and protect Brazil’s food sovereignty; promotes ecologically sustainable forms of small-scale farming; and emphasizes that meaningful agrarian reform requires social, economic, political, and cultural development that focuses on human welfare and workers’ rights instead of corporate profits and global economic competitiveness (Carter 2005:10-11; Martins 2003:2-3; Wright and Wolford 2003:101-105, 152-179; Domingos 2002:6-7; Branford and Rocha 2002:225-239).  In sum, the MST contends that agricultural practices applied in its settlements can set the stage for broader social transformation, in Brazil and abroad.

When strategic opportunities are favorable, the MST uses its organizational structures to support massive and dramatic nonviolent direct action campaigns aimed at transforming the Brazilian government.  In 1997, for example, nearly 1,500 landless settlers began a peaceful march to the capital to pressure the Cardoso administration to implement the MST’s program for agrarian reform and land distribution.  The so-called National March for Agrarian Reform, Employment, and Justice covered about 1,000 miles and lasted several months.  The leading groups of landless marchers, who started from three distant corners of the country, arrived in Brasília on April 17, 1997, the first anniversary of the Massacre of Eldorado de Carajás.  They found nearly 100,000 Brazilian and foreign supporters waiting for them.  This dramatic demonstration of public sympathy for the MST and Brazil’s landless workers was the product of organizational alliances with labor unions, other social movements, progressive churches, left-wing political parties, international cooperation agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and international networks, which had grown particularly strong and extensive after the 1996 massacre.  Similar marches and demonstrations have taken place since then, and each time the domestic and international networks of MST supporters expand, while the pressure on the Brazilian state to meet MST’s demands increases (Carter 2005; Hammond 2004; Wright and Wolford 2003:208-209; Branford and Rocha 2002:197-200; Veltmeyer and Petras 2002; Stédile 2002).  In some situations, the organizational structures that allow MST activists to meet their daily needs and build alternative communities also allow them to publicly challenge unjust institutions and authorities (Vinthagen 2005: 369-384).


Now that we have addressed the elements that constitute the political culture of nonviolent opposition framework for both social movements, we are ready to illustrate how they intersect and contribute to a new synthesis of contentious politics and nonviolent action studies.  Starting with the Indian independence movement, we can see how the moral shock of the Amritsar massacre in 1919 contributed to the emotional experiences that persuaded a wide cross-section of the Indian population to recognize Gandhi’s reinvention of cultural idioms like swadeshi, sarvodaya, aparigraha, and khadi as relevant in the struggle against British rule and for national autonomy.  Indirectly, Gandhian love (in response to colonial oppression) supported the Indian independence movement’s ideologies concerning Hind Swaraj, satyagraha, and ahimsa, which in turn directly shaped Gandhian organizational structures for applying nonviolent methods and principles in everyday life (in the form of ashrams and the Constructive Program) as well as public campaigns like the Salt March (supported by the Indian National Congress and broad alliances).  These networks and institutions indirectly drew on and stimulated the traditional symbols highlighted by Gandhi, especially the spinning wheel and homespun clothing.  Although our brief description of dynamic linkages is far from comprehensive, figure 2 provides an impression of how all these elements—emotional experiences, cultural idioms, ideologies, and organizational structures—were interrelated and came together in the form of a Gandhian political culture of nonviolent opposition.


In the case of the MST, the massacre of Eldorado de Carajás has shaped the emotional experiences of Brazil’s landless workers, who have gained public sympathy and translated their suffering into cultural idioms through various forms of mística, which strengthens their resolve and collective identity.  Moral righteousness in the face of oppressive landowners and police troops indirectly confirms their pluralist ideologies, blending Marxist views on exploitation with Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed, which in turn directly reinforce MST’s organizational structures for occupying unproductive land, building self-sufficient settlements, promoting agrarian reform based on social justice, and engaging in nonviolent direct action campaigns like the National March for Agrarian Reform, Employment, and Justice.  These institutions and alliances, moreover, popularize and rely on folkloristic symbols and rituals like the MST’s anthem and flag.  Figure 3 shows the processes involved in the creation of an MST political culture of nonviolent opposition.

FIGURE 3 ABOUT HERE                                    

            We suggest that our theoretical and empirical discussion points toward a new approach for studying contentious politics and nonviolent action.  By drawing on Reed and Foran (2002), we incorporate relevant insights of cultural sociologists (e.g., Emirbayer 1997; Jasper 1997; Scott 1990; Sewell 1985, 1996; Skocpol 1985; Scott 1990) as well as cultural studies authors (e.g., V.J. Reed 2005; Leistyna 2005; Alvarez et al. 1997) without neglecting interactions between protest groups and government authorities.  At the same time, we recognize the importance of social movement studies that focus on political processes and institutions (Tilly 2004; McAdam et al. 2001; Tarrow 1998), but also respond to their limitations in accounting for cultural dynamics (e.g., Goodwin and Jasper 2004; Mansbridge and Morris 2001; Buechler 2000; Johnston and Klandermans 1995; Darnovsky, Epstein, and Flacks 1995; Morris and Mueller 1992).  In short, the political culture of opposition framework helps us move beyond dichotomies between politics and culture that continue to haunt social movement scholarship.

            Introducing the concept of political culture of nonviolent opposition, moreover, enables us to continue efforts to merge the contentious politics and nonviolent action fields without reproducing the binary of pragmatic versus principled nonviolence (Schock 2005; Ackerman and Kruegler 1994; McCarty and Kruegler 1993; Sharp 1973, 1990).  Instead of assuming that strategic forms of unarmed insurrection are distinct from normative ones, we highlight both the culture of nonviolent politics and the politics of nonviolent culture (Terchek 1998; Fox 1989, 1997; Lakey 1987).  In addition, our concept breaks new ground by stressing that meaningful and sustainable nonviolent opposition relies on an alternative view of power.  While scholars in the two fields generally accept the Weberian emphasis on domination and “power over,” we suggest that the Indian independence movement and Brazil’s MST were (and continue to be) transformative due to their promotion of “power with” processes like love, dialogue, collaboration, and reconciliation (Kreisberg 1992).  Although flawed and incomplete, both nonviolent social movements have demonstrated that ends do not justify the means, that substituting one governmental tyranny with another does not produce more peaceful and equitable societies.

            While opening avenues for research, our theoretical framework and case studies raise a number of questions that need to be addressed.  First of all, we only examine one of the political cultures of the Indian independence movement and the MST.  As Reed and Foran (2002:338) observe, however, social movements and revolutions usually articulate multiple political cultures of opposition, some of which may contradict each other.  Secondly, in reality, the connections between emotions, ideologies, cultural idioms, organizational structures, and political cultures of nonviolent opposition are much more complex and fluid than we could discuss in a few paragraphs.  The relationships between these elements are reciprocal, interdependent, ever-changing, and embedded in various fields of interaction.  And finally, we only provide a few illustrative examples of how each element applies to two cases, which both deserve more rigorous and extensive analysis.  We invite fellow scholars of nonviolent action and contentious politics to join us in exploring additional political cultures of (nonviolent) opposition for each social movement, specifying our framework in greater detail, extending our case studies, and contributing other case studies.  Most importantly, though, we urge students of contentious politics and pragmatic nonviolent action to focus on the interplay between cultural and political processes.  By moving beyond artificial dichotomies, such work would be more directly relevant to contemporary activists, who are reinventing and applying their own political cultures of nonviolent opposition in struggles for social justice throughout the world.



We thank participants in the Symposium on Nonviolent Research at the University of Tromsø in Norway, Sean Scalmer, John Guidry, Sidney Tarrow, Charles Tilly, and the reviewers for helpful comments.  Address correspondence to: Sean Chabot, Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, Eastern Washington University, 314 Patterson Hall, Cheney, WA 99004; e-mail:



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