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Lessons to be learned from Eastern Europe

Henk bij de Weg

The present idea of social defense

The present idea of social defense (also called civilian defense or civilian-based defense) goes back to the fifties when it was introduced by military strategists like Liddell Hart and King-Hall. Though the idea had existed before the Second World War it had become "lost". After the idea had been "re-invented", pre-war concepts such as "Pacifist People’s Defense" could become influential again. After the (re)introduction of the idea by military strategists it was adopted by peace researchers and peace activists and it received a more widespread influence in discussions about war and peace, though it could only rarely leave the backyard where it had been originally.

When the concept of social defense was adopted by peace researchers and peace activists a new meaning was added to it. Originally it was seen only as a mere instrument, as another means of defense, which could be used in any circumstances. But now the concept received also a structural meaning. According to this view, social defense could be introduced only in a society which satisfied certain conditions, e.g., the presence of democratic, nonviolent relations within the society concerned. Later, mainly under the influence of the ideas of the movement "Women for Peace, yet another meaning was added to the concept – emancipation from all kinds of violence that a person could experience, be it violence in war or be it violence in daily life. This view introduced a disconnection of social defense and defense in case of war, but in fact, it was a minority view. The majority view remained that social defense has a relation to war or resistance against dictatorial repression, and that it is a nonviolent alternative to international or civil war. It is sufficient to point to the recent discussions in connection with the work of the Dutch Niezing Committee and some recently-published studies in the Netherlands (like the studies by Koch, Klumper, and Schmid). Of course, this relation between social defense and waging war was not surprising. What else could be expected in the age of the Cold War, with arms more destructive than ever, and rising defense budgets?

Changes in Eastern Europe and social defense

However, recent developments in Eastern Europe, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall, have much changed the political situation in Europe. The Cold War has come to an end, war between East and West (let alone nuclear war) seems to have become almost impossible and, as a consequence, most nations in this part of the world have begun to reduce their number of arms and soldiers. So why shouldn’t the protagonists of social defense also stop development of their nonviolent weapon and leave the backyard where they cultivated it for years? Or why not rest on one’s laurels? Without saying that the activists just mentioned are not important and useful (they may have a narrow relation with making the world more peaceful – which is just what the social defense protagonists are working for), perhaps a preliminary question should be answered before deciding whether or not the idea of social defense should be developed further. The question is: Isn’t there something we can learn from what happened and is still happening in Eastern Europe? If so, we may decide to continue to work on social defense.

Five theses

In answering the question I will not give a full-fledged analysis of what has taken place in Eastern Europe recently. Rather, I shall simply give some conclusions in the form of five amplified theses:

1) Social defense should not be conceived of in relation to military defense – neither as an alternative for, nor as a supplement to military defense. Social defense is a phenomenon by itself. When the people of the Eastern European countries tried to get rid of the communist regimes they did not think and talk about their activities in military terms but rather, in terms of democratization, more freedom, improvement of economic circumstances, etc. In Western countries these terms do not usually stand for a justification of military operations against an enemy but rather, for a better way of life, and this is also true in Eastern Europe. This does not mean that social defense cannot be an alternative for or a supplement to military defense in certain circumstances but that is not the most obvious way of talking about it. Social defense reflects the way people wish to live their daily life and must be analyzed in terms of this daily life in the first place. With concepts like power politics and strategy one can reveal, then, only a part of what social defense stands for. It is better to start to analyze social defense as a social movement or as a way of social change, that is, in sociological terms, and not in political, let alone military terms.

2) The possibility of social defense is closely related to the nature of the society in which it is employed and to its structure. Only if certain structural conditions are fulfilled is social defense possible. It was only when the existing structure of society broke down in Eastern Europe that the non-communist opposition could become successful, and this structure broke down only because the societies could not fulfil their own goals (mainly in the field of production), and not because of the opposition. So people who consider the possibility of social defense to be conditional on the structure of society are right, but this does not mean that the structure must be nonviolent or democratic, or in another sense, "ideal". It is sufficient that the structure is such that it gives enough space for opposition. On the other hand it means also that social defense cannot be used as a mere instrument.

3) Social defense is not voluntaristic. People do not resist just because they are (and feel themselves) repressed. They must see that there is a real possibility of success. This possibility may appear from a weakening of repressive structure together with a clear view of alternatives. In the case of Eastern Europe the weakening of the repressive structures became evident in the policy of the leader of the major power in that area, Mr. Gorbachev. The alternatives were shown by opposition leaders and dissidents.

4) A consequence of the second and third theses is this, that just pointing to the repressive character of the existing regimes and social structures is not sufficient for changing them and starting a massive social defense movement. An elite group of opposition leaders or dissidents cannot start a social defense movement if the structural conditions are not met. But such a group can play an important part in preparing to make massive nonviolent resistance possible at the right moment and place. So, Charta 77 could not bring down the Czechoslovakian government at the moment of choice, but it could make resistance against the regime effective at the moment that it was possible to overthrow the regime.

5) Social defense is contagious. Social defense in one country can invite nonviolent resistance in other countries with repressive regimes, even though these regimes are not as weak as the regime in the country where the social defense movement originated. It may happen that a repressive regime will give in out of fear, but in itself, contagiousness is not sufficient. Unless the repressive structures are hollow (thesis 2) and unless there is an alternative (thesis 3), the repressive regime will be able to resist the social defense virus. So the success of nonviolent resistance may have influenced movements in African countries and elsewhere, but the just-mentioned conditions may take their success difficult.


If these theses are correct they have important consequences for the idea of social defense as it has been conceived until now, I think. For social defense as practiced in Eastern Europe and as described in these theses is quite different from the "traditional" idea, be it instrumental, structural or emancipatory. What is common in all these concepts, old and new, is that social defense is nonviolent resistance against repression. But in other respects social defense as practiced in Eastern Europe is different. For none of the conceptions in my theses form part of the established idea of social defense until now. But that means we cannot keep the idea of social defense unchanged and that we have to think over anew what it really stands for. The rethinking of the idea of social defense is, however, not only a theoretical necessity but it is also practical. For the changes in Eastern Europe did not involve an end of repression in the world and so much work remains to be done for the social defense protagonist. Only a clear view of what social defense is can make this work successful.

When we now return to the main question of this article, I think that the answer has become evident. Indeed we can learn from what has happened and still is happening in Eastern Europe, and conclude that the development of the idea of social defense is worthwhile and necessary.

I want to thank Joep Creyghton, Tijmen van ’t Foort and Giliam de Valk for their critical comment upon a first draft of this article. Of course only I am responsible for the contents.

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