Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Martin Luther King, American Strategist, a Clausewitzian Analysis

Dr. Martin Luther King was a leader of a movement whose goal was the establishment of justice. He was very conscious of being part of a much wider, even world-wide phenomenon which we are still experiencing today. This post argues that Martin Luther King's strategy of nonviolent direct action fits within a larger Clausewitzian strategic theory framework, specifically Clausewitz's General Theory of War, by providing the theoretical threshold of violent and nonviolent coercion. This assumes of course that King's strategy was a form of coercion, that is a struggle for power and thus is within the realm of strategic theory. I will start with a discussion of the strategic theory framework concerning coercion and connect it to direct non-violent action. From there I will describe King's strategy in terms of its purpose and main elements and finally conclude with what King's strategy tells us about today's geo-strategic situation.

In his popular text, the Clausewitzian strategic theorist Colin Gray provides us with an adequate definition of strategy:
Strategy is the bridge that relates military power to political purpose; it is neither military power per se nor political purpose. By Strategy I mean the use that is made of force and the threat of force for the ends of policy. This is an adaptation of Clausewitz, though certainly not an adaptation of his plain intent. In On War, Clausewitz provides an admirably tight and terse, yet apparently narrow, definition: 'Strategy is the use of engagements for the object of the war.' Clausewitz's definition is a superior one. His definition has an operational, even battlefield orientation, that suggests a restrictive focus on combat. But his definition has a more that compensating virtue in clarity on the core of the matter. If one can think expansively about what should be encompassed by the idea of 'engagements', the merit in Clausewitz's approach is overwhelming. Freely translated, he tells us that strategy is the use of of tacit and explicit threats, as well as actual battles and campaigns, to advance political purposes. Moreover, that strategy at issue may not be military strategy; instead it may be grand strategy that uses 'engagements', meaning all of the relevant instruments of power as threat or in action, for the objectives of statecraft.
Modern Strategy, page 17

The definition that Gray introduces is not the limit of applying Clausewitz to King's ideas, rather it is only the first step. Of even greater interest is the distinction Clausewitz makes in Book 1, Chapter 2 of On War between inflicting "general damage" and "inflicting pain":

. . . The first tends to describe the more military, the second the more political alternative. From the highest point of view however, one is as military as the other, and neither is appropriate unless it suits the particular conditions. The third, and far the most important method, judging from the frequency of its use, is to wear down the enemy. That expression is more than a label; it describes the process precisely, and is not so metaphorical as it may seem at first. Wearing down the enemy is a conflict means using the duration of the war to being about a gradual exhaustion of his physical and moral resistance.

This is the distinction between inflicting physical damage which is normally linked to the idea of gaining a military victory, and inflicting pain or the threat of pain to coerce the other side to give us what we want. Notice that Clausewitz's third method or element of wearing down the enemy includes both the above along with the exertions the enemy himself makes due to opposing side's continued resistance.

For my purposes here, what is important to understand is the distinction between physical force as in destruction (associated with military victory) and inflicting pain as in coercion (associated with bringing the other side to negotiation). King knew that violence was not an option for the US black population, and by avoiding violence and refusing to enter into a cycle of escalating violence (one of Clausewitz's tendencies to the extreme described in Book 1, Chapter 1, Section 3), that is by employing nonviolent coercion and duration - Clausewitz's second and third elements described above - King would be able to achieve his goals through his strategy. I will develop this more below.

It is interesting to note that this distinction in Clausewitzian theory was also being developed by another like-minded theorist - as in fitting within a larger Clausewitzian framework - at the time, Thomas Schelling, who wrote in his 1966 classic, Arms and Influence:

Military strategy can no longer be thought of, as it could for some countries in some eras, as the science of military victory. It is equally, if not more, the art of coercion, of intimidation and deterrence. The instruments of war are more punitive than acquisitive. Military strategy, whether we like it or not, has become the diplomacy of violence.
page 34

So I have linked Clausewitz to coercion, but is King's strategy of non-violent direct action, coercion, and was it so seen at the time? To answer that question we need to go back even further than King's 1960s to someone who was to have a profound influence on him, another American minister, a theologian and political activist - Reinhold Niebuhr.

In 1932 Niebuhr wrote commenting on Gandi's approach:

The social and moral effects of these very vivid proofs of moral goodwill are tremendous. In every social conflict each party is so obsessed with the wrongs which the other party commits against it, that is it is unable to see its own wrong-doing. A non-violent temper reduces these animosities to a minimum and therefore preserves a certain objectivity in analyzing the issues of the dispute . . .
One of the most important results of a spiritual discipline against resentment in a social dispute is that it leads to an effort to discriminate between the evils of a social system and situation and the individuals who are involved in it. Individuals are never as immoral as the social situations in which they are involved and which they symbolise. If opposition to a system leads to personal insults of its representatives, it is always felt as an unjust accusation . . . An impartial teacher of morals would be compelled to insist on the principle of personal responsibility for social guilt. But it is morally and politically wise for an opponent not to do so. Any benefit of the doubt which he is able to give his opponent is certain to reduce animosities and preserve rational objectivity in assessing the issues under dispute.
Moral Man and Immoral Society, pp 162-3

No mention of coercion yet, but Niebuhr brings up a very interesting point from a Clausewitzian perspective. By keeping the conflict below the threshold of violence the leader using direct non-violent action retains firm control of the rational instrument he or she is employing. By not reacting to the unjust situation or to provocation, the proponent of non-violent change is making the unjust issue the only issue, not converting or diverting that issue to one of personal attack or the use of force. In actual war, following Clausewitz's general theory, it is the resistance of the defender that initiates hostilities and the interaction of violence between the two sides, leading to ever more violence due to the interaction of both sides within an environment of passion, chance and subordination to the political purpose. By leaving out the possible escalating cycles of violence and all the confusion, chance, friction and passion that they usher forth, the practitioner of direct non-violent action steps forward in very focused and determined steps towards his of her goal. This of course would not do away with any of these elements (confusion, chance, friction and passion would remain), but they would not be taking place within a vortex of escalating violence and would be theoretically much more containable/manageable.

Niebuhr continues:

Both the temper and the method of non-violence yield another very important advantage in social conflict. They rob the opponent of the moral conceit by which he identifies his interests with the peace and order of society. This is the most important of all the imponderables in a social struggle. It is the one which gives an entrenched and dominate group the clearest and the least justified advantage over those who are attacking the status quo. The latter are placed in teh category of enemies of public order, of criminals and inciters to violence and the neutral community is invariably arrayed against them. The temper and the method of non-violence destroys the plausibility of this moral conceit of the entrenched interests . . .

Non-violent coercion and resistance, in short, is a type of coercion which offers the largest opportunities for a harmonious relationship with the moral and rational factors in social life. It does not destroy the process of a moral and rational adjustment of interest to interest completely during the course of resistance . . .

This means that non-violence is a particularly strategic instrument for an oppressed group which is hopelessly in the minority and has no possibility of developing sufficient power to set against its oppressors . . .

The emancipation of the Negro race in America probably waits upon the adequate development of this kind of social and political strategy. It is hopeless for the Negro race to expect complete emancipation from the menial social and economic position into which the white man has forced him, merely by trusting in the moral sense of the white race. It is equally hopeless to attempt emancipation through violent rebellion.
pp 164-5

Notice especially Niebuhr's use of terms such as "strategic instrument" and "political strategy". The direct connection with Clausewitzian concepts is obvious. Also obvious is the influence Of Niebuhr on King who mentions Niebuhr by name in connection with this particular book in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. With King's strategy of non-violent direct action placed in a proper strategic theory framework, I would like to now describe that strategy.

Martin Luther King outlined his ideas effectively in his sermons and speeches which received wide-spread dissemination. Education of his approach was a key requirement for it to be carried out effectively, and as we will see, this education and commitment were given specific emphasis allowing for his strategy to be successful.

I have used three of King's speeches to provide an outline his strategy, they are the already mentioned Letter from a Birmingham Jail of 1963, Nonviolence: The Only Read to Freedom of 1966, and his last speech, given the day before he was murdered, I've Been to the Mountaintop of 1968. I think these three speeches adequately outline the strategy, although this would not preclude expanding on this analysis by bringing in other King references. I am not saying that this is "the best way", let alone the only way, to conceive of King's strategy, rather my intention is to show the intellectually-deep conceptual nature of King's approach and how his strategy fits within a larger strategic theory framework, which only indicates its continued durability and applicability in my opinion. This makes Martin Luther King one of the best American strategists of the 20th Century, which is something altogether different from being a strategic thinker or strategic theorist (such as Thomas Schelling) in that King actually developed and carried out successfully his own strategy. For the purposes of this post, I will only refer to "Letter", not the other two speeches. This allows me to limit the analysis in terms of space and at the same time allow for a follow-up post or paper going into more detail and using the other two references. For that reason consider this post simply my first word, not my final word, on the subject.

In "Letter" King defines non-violent direct action (NVDA) "whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community". As to purpose, NVDA "seeks to create such a crisis and foster such tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored" (Letter). NVDA consists of a series of interrelated concepts which form a complex whole, these concepts can be described as "tension", "love", "self-defense" and the "economic element". They are combined with two operating principles: the four basic steps of a non-violent campaign and the organization of marches. Let me start with the two operating principles and then weave the four concepts into the overall framework, keeping the purpose and definition of NVDA always in mind.

In "Letter" King writes, "In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action." From what King writes it seems that the first leads into the others, based on the merits of the situation, but steps two and three (negotiation and self-purification) are continuous and ongoing. The final step of "direct action" is the campaign itself which includes sit-ins, marches and highly focused economic pressure (boycotts).

Marches are organized to last over a longer period - 35-45 days - and attempt to get as much press coverage as possible.

To these operating principles we can now add the four concepts of which "tension" is perhaps the most important from a Clausewitzian perspective, since it adds measurably to the general theory of conflict and war itself. King writes:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. So the purpose of the direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

The "tension" that King speaks of is the gross injustice of the situation which has been allowed to continue. This "constructive non-violent tension" he speaks of is directly related with non-violent coercion, which makes it distinct from violent coercion. What King has done from a Clausewitzian theory perspective is defined the area of non-violent coercion as an area of political/economic operations and devised a strategy for operating at this level, while at the same time carefully avoiding that the operations spill over into violence and thus lose their focus and advantages. By linking "tension" to the operational level of non-violent coercion he allows for Clausewitz's definition of strategy and the achievement of his community's political purpose.

This concept is dealt with in a very innovative manner since the actual "tension" is within the value system of the oppressing group, since it is they who are not living up to their own professed values. One cannot argue that "all men are created equal" and then treat a large segment of the population unequally based on the color of their skin. In this way King does not make the confrontation personal, as Niebuhr warns, but makes it one of NVDA confronting the oppressors with the contradiction of their own position, shows them a mirror to reflect the oppressor's own hypocrisy. NVDA does not produce the tension, but as King states, only uncovers it:

. . . the present tension in the South is merely a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, where the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substance-filled positive peace, where all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

One can see here where another of the basic concepts comes in, that being "love". Another reason that this conflict does not become violent is that the NVDA activists do not hate their oppressors, but rather consider them as "sick brothers", people in need of their assistance since by forcing the tension and the issue to successful negotiation, the movement allows the oppressors to stop living in hypocrisy and to "heal". Thus King writes:

One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.

We see here clearly where "tension" and "love" combine, both being linked with justice and righting an unjust situation.

The next interrelated concept of that of "self-defense", which is really more the act of submitting oneself to the situation, giving up the right to self-defense in the pursuit of justice. King warns that too often self-defense, once taken up becomes the only goal and the focus, whereas the injustice itself must remain clearly the focus of NVDA. The very definition of NVDA requires that the activist present his or her own body as a target to injustice in an attempt to bring the tension to the surface, bring about fruitful negotiation and a resolution to the injustice so that a healing process can begin. Focusing on self-defense can too often turn into counter-violence which will only impede the goals of NVDA. Consider that in the four basic steps of a non-violent campaign both negotiation and self-purification are continuous, that is the activists must constantly be open to communication with the oppressors AND be mindful of what their actual purpose is. This specific attitude towards "self-defense" is explicit in the very definition of NVDA itself.

Finally, the last concept of the "economic element" is important for two basic reasons: It is both a source of weakness for the oppressor and a source of strength for the NVDA activist. NVDA often leads to a separation of interests on the side of the oppressors, since the economic interests involved may find it profitable to negotiate separately from the political power. In Birmingham this was the case, as king indicates:

We decided to set our direct-action program around the Easter season, realizing that with the exception of Christmas, this was the largest shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic withdrawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this was the best time to bring pressure on the merchants for the needed changes.

From a Clausewitzian perspective, this would indicate a low level of both moral and material cohesion among the oppressors which King's NVDA movement, with high level of both types would be in a good position to exploit. This economic element gained increasing importance for King as his strategy developed.

Since this post is already quite long, I'll end it here with one more comment concerning King the strategist. Not only was Martin Luther King able to formulate an effective strategy, but he was also able to pick and choose his engagements effectively and lead his followers into the campaign which followed. He knew that going to Birmingham and facing Bull Connor would lead to a decisive action, that is Birmingham would either make or break the movement.

Martin Luther King was a remarkable American.


  1. Wow, what a nice analysis.

    MLK prophetically stated he would not live to see the fruition of his efforts, presaging his own martyrdom. As a minister, Jesus's example would have had a strong influence on his methodology.

    In his martyrdom, Jesus forced the hand of his enemies against Him. In the ultimate act of a submissive forcing the hand of the superior, He made his opponents kill Him, securing his futurity in the process (by fulfilling the messianic fervor of the time.)

    While I do not think that MLK welcomed martyrdom in the same way, surely his murder wrought the point of no return. One wonders if he had lived, how the non-violent process would have played out. As with Gandhi, radical elements cannot long bear such an approach.

  2. Seydlitz-

    Excellent analysis. Interestingly, all too few realize that strategic though, planning and action applies to policy in arenas other than warfare. As so clearly demonstrated in the drama of American domestic politics, most players are too my optic and of too short an attention span to think and act strategically.

  3. Let's not forget that as brilliant as a strategist as MLK was, no commander can succeed without disciplined troops.

    I can't imagine anything harder than going out unarmed to, in effect, be injured or killed for your cause. It's SO much easier to kill for it. It would have been ridiculously easy for some of King's companions - Medgar Evers, say - to have decided that King was a cloudy-headed fantasist and that the only way to civil rights was through the barrel of a gun.

    The Freedom Riders, the sit-down strikers and lunch-counter protestors...thousands of regular people had to ruthlessly suppress their human instinct to fight back and let themselves be jailed, beaten and killed to win their right to be a regular Joe and Jane in 1960's America.

    I've always thought that the problem the Palestinians have had is that they have way too many soldiers willing to kill for their cause and way too few willing to be killed for it.

    But King had that one thought out - he knew who he was fighting and knew that the he would overthrow them with their own force; a strategic judo of the first order.

    Brilliant guy. With an amazing army behind him...

  4. Thanks for the kind words.


    Yes, the MLK of 1963 (the Letter that I quoted) and the jubilation of 1968 are very different and indicate quite different qualities as a strategist and leader. Definitely worth a third paper I would think. ;

  5. Very nice, Seydlitz. This is an angle on MLK I hadn't heard or considered before. You should consider publishing this in a journal if you haven't already.

  6. Thanks Andy, we'll see what happens.

  7. Nice comment from Adam Elkus on this post, as well as an article on MLK . . .

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