Resistance movement

A resistance movement is an organized effort by some portion of the civil population of a country to resist the legally established government or an occupying power and to disrupt civil order and stability. It may seek to achieve its objectives through either the use of nonviolent resistance (sometimes called civil resistance), or the use of force, whether armed or unarmed. In many cases, as for example in Norway in the Second World War, a resistance movement may employ both violent and non-violent methods, usually operating under different organizations and acting in different phases or geographical areas within a country.[1]

The term resistance is generally used to designate a movement considered legitimate (from the speaker's point of view). Organizations and individuals critical of foreign intervention and supporting forms of organized movement (particularly where citizens are affected) tend to favor the term. When such a resistance movement uses violence, those favorably disposed to it may also speak of freedom fighters.

On the lawfulness of armed resistance movements in international law, there has been a dispute between states since at least 1899, when the first major codification of the laws of war in the form of a series of international treaties took place. In the Preamble to the 1899 Hague Convention II on Land War, the Martens Clause was introduced as a compromise wording for the dispute between the Great Powers who considered francs-tireurs to be unlawful combatants subject to execution on capture and smaller states who maintained that they should be considered lawful combatants.[2][3] More recently the 1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, referred in Article 1. Paragraph 4 to armed conflicts "... in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes..." This phraseology contains many ambiguities that cloud the issue of who is or is not a legitimate combatant.[4] Hence depending on the perspective of a state's government, a resistance movement may or may not be labelled a terrorist group based on whether the members of a resistance movement are considered lawful or unlawful combatants and whether they are recognised as having a right to resist occupation.[5] Ultimately, the distinction is a political judgment.


The modern usage of the term "Resistance" originates from the self-designation of many movements during World War II, especially the French Resistance. The term is still strongly linked to the context of the events of 1939–45, and particularly to opposition movements in Axis-occupied countries. Using the term "resistance" to designate a movement meeting the definition prior to World War II might be considered by some to be an anachronism. However, such movements existed prior to World War II, (albeit often called by different names), and there have been many after it – for example in struggles against colonialism and foreign military occupations. "Resistance" has become a generic term that has been used to designate underground resistance movements in any country.


Resistance movements can include any irregular armed force that rises up against an enforced or established authority, government, or administration. This frequently includes groups that consider themselves to be resisting tyranny. Some resistance movements are underground organizations engaged in a struggle for national liberation in a country under military occupation or totalitarian domination. Tactics of resistance movements against a constituted authority range from nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience, to industrial sabotage and guerrilla warfare, or even conventional warfare if the resistance movement is strong enough. Any government facing violent acts from a resistance movement usually condemns such acts as terrorism, even when such attacks target only the military or security forces. Resistance during World War II was mainly dedicated to fighting the Axis occupiers. Germany itself also had an anti-Nazi German resistance movement in this period. Although the United Kingdom did not suffer invasion in World War II, preparations were made for a British resistance movement in the event of a German invasion (see Auxiliary Units)

Geographies of resistance

When we talk about geographies of resistance, we often take for granted that resistance takes place in the spaces where domination, power, or oppression is present. So, resistance is often understood as something that always opposes to power or domination. However, some scholars believe and argue that looking at resistance in relation to only power and domination will not provide us a full understanding of the actual nature of resistance. Not all power, domination or oppression leads to resistance, and not all cases of resistance are against or to oppose what we categorize as “power.” In fact, they believe that resistance has its own characteristics and spatialities. In Steve Pile’s (1997) “Opposition, political identities and spaces of resistance,” geographies of resistance show:

That people are positioned differently in unequal and multiple power relationships, that more or less powerful people are active in the constitution of unfolding relationships of authority, meaning and identity, that these activities are contingent, ambiguous and awkwardly situated, but that resistance seeks to occupy, deploy and create alternative spatilities from those defined through oppression and exploitation. From this perspective, assumptions about the domination/resistance couplet become questionable.
Steve Pile, 1996: 3

We can better understand resistance by accounting different perspectives and by breaking the presumptions that resistance is always against power. In fact, resistance should be understood not only in relations to domination and authority, but also through other experiences, such as “desire and anger, capacity and ability, happiness and fear, dreaming and forgetting,”[6] meaning that resistance is not always about the dominated versus the dominator, the exploited versus the exploiter, or the oppressed versus the oppressor. There are various forms of resistance for various reasons, which then can be, again, classified as violent and nonviolent resistance (and “other” which is unclear).

Different geographical spaces can also make different forms of resistance possible or impossible and more effective or less effective. Furthermore, in order to understand any resistance, – its capacity to achieve its objective effectively, its success or failure –, we need to take closely into account many variables, such as political identities, cultural identities, class, race, gender and so on. The reason is that these variations can define the nature and outcome of resistance. Harvey (1993), who looked at resistance in relations to capitalist economic exploitation, took on a fire accident happened in the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina in 1991, in which 20 of 200 workers were killed and 56 were injured due to poor working conditions and protections. He compared this accident with a similar fire accident at Triangle Shirtwaist Company, New York, 1911, killing 146 workers, which caused a labor resistance by 100,000 people.[7] He argued that no resistance took place in respond to the fire accident in Hamlet because most of the people who died there were black and women workers, and he believed that not only class but also other identities such as race, gender, and sexuality were important factors in understanding nature and outcome of resistance. For an effective resistance, he proposed that four tasks should be undertaken:

First, social justice must be defined from the perspective of the oppressed; second, a hierarchy of the oppressions has to be defined…..; third, political actions need to be understood and undertaken in terms of their situatedness and position in dynamic power relations: and finally, an epistemology capable of telling the difference between different differences has to be developed.

There are many forms of resistance in relations to different power dominations and actors. Some resistance takes place in order to oppose, change, or reform the exploitation of the capitalist economic systems and the capitals, while other resistance takes place against the state or authority in power. Moreover, some other resistance takes place in order to resist or question the social/culture norms or discourse or in order to challenge a global trend called "globalization". For example, LGBT social movements[8] is an example of resistance that challenges and tries to reform the existing cultural norms in many societies. Resistance can also be mapped in various scales ranging from local to national to regional and to global spaces. We can look at a big-scale resistance movement such as Anti-globalization movement[9] that tries to resist the global trend of capitalist economic system. Or we can look at the Internal resistance to South African apartheid,[10] which took place at national level. Most, if not all, social movements can be considered as some forms of resistance.

Not all resistance takes place in physical spaces or geographies but in “other spaces” as well. Some resistance happens in the form of Protest Art[11] or in the form of music. Music can be used and has been used as a tool or space to resist certain oppression or domination. Gray-Rosendale, L. (2001) put it this way:[12]

Music acts as a rhetorical force that sanctions the construction of the boys’ new black urban subjectivities that both challenge urban experience and yet give voice to it… contributes a way to avoid physical and psychological immobility and to resist economic and cultural adaptation….and challenges the social injustice prevalent within the Northern economy.
Gray-Rosendale, 2001: 154-156

In the age of advanced IT and mass consumption of social media, resistance can also occur in the cyberspace. The Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council of NSW’s Tobacco Resistance and Control (A-TRAC) team created a Facebook page to help promote anti-smoking campaign and rise awareness for its members.[13] Sometimes, resistance takes place in people’s minds and ideology or in people’s “inner spaces.” For example, sometimes people have to struggle within or fight against their inner spaces, with their consciousness and, sometimes, with their fear before they can resist in the physical spaces. In other cases, people sometimes simply resist to certain ideology, belief, or culture norms within their minds. These kinds of resistance are less visible but very fundamental parts of all forms of resistance.

Controversy regarding definition

Some definitions of resistance movement have proved controversial. According to Joint Publication 1-02, the United States Department of Defense defines a resistance movement as "an organized effort by some portion of the civil population of a country to resist the legally established government or an occupying power and to disrupt civil order and stability". In strict military terminology, a resistance movement is simply that; it seeks to resist (change) the policies of a government or occupying power. This may be accomplished through violent or non-violent means. In this view, a resistance movement is specifically limited to changing the nature of current power, not to overthrow it; and the correct military term for removing or overthrowing a government is an insurgency. However, in reality many resistance movements have aimed to displace a particular ruler, especially if that ruler has gained or retained power illegally.

Freedom fighter

"Freedom fighter" redirects here. For other uses, see Freedom Fighters.
Mujahideen loyal to Yunus Khalis, in October 1987

Freedom fighter is another term for those engaged in a struggle to achieve political freedom for themselves or obtain freedom for others.[14] Though the literal meaning of the words could include "anyone who fights for the cause of freedom", in common use it may be restricted to those who are actively involved in an armed rebellion, rather than those who campaign for freedom by peaceful means, or those who fight violently for the freedom of others outside the context of an uprising (though this title may be applied in its literal sense)

Generally speaking, freedom fighters are people who use physical force to cause a change in the political and or social order. Notable examples include the Ulster volunteer force, Umkhonto we Sizwe in South Africa, the Sons of Liberty in the American Revolution the Eritrean People's Liberation Front and the National Resistance Army in Uganda, which were considered freedom fighters by supporters. However, a person who is campaigning for freedom through peaceful means may still be classed as a freedom fighter, though in common usage they are called political activists, as in the case of the Black Consciousness Movement.

People described as freedom fighters are often also called assassins, rebels, insurgents or terrorists. This leads to the aphorism "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter".[15] The degree to which this occurs depends on a variety of factors specific to the struggle in which a given freedom fighter group is engaged. During the Cold War, under Ronald Reagan's Reagan Doctrine, the term freedom fighter was used by the United States and other Western Bloc countries to describe rebels in countries controlled by communist states or otherwise under the influence of the Soviet Union, including rebels in Hungary, the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua, UNITA in Angola and the multi-factional mujahideen in Afghanistan. In the media, an effort has been made by the BBC to avoid the phrases "terrorist" or "freedom fighter", except in attributed quotes, in favor of more neutral terms such as "militant", "guerrilla", "assassin", "insurgent", "paramilitary" or "militia".[16]

Common weapons

Partisans often use captured weapons taken from their enemies, or weapons that have been stolen or smuggled in. During the Cold War, partisans often received arms from either NATO or Warsaw Pact member states. Forces sympathetic to the communist ideology often received aid from the latter in the form of military equipment. Where partisan resources ares stretched, improvised weapons are also deployed.

Examples of resistance movements

The following examples are of groups that have been considered or would identify themselves as groups. These are mostly, but not exclusively, of armed resistance movements. For movements and phases of activity involving non-violent methods, see civil resistance and nonviolent resistance.

Pre-20th century

Pre–World War II

World War II

Planned resistance movements

Post–World War II

Notable individuals in resistance movements

World War II (anti-Nazi, anti-Fascist etc)

Other resistance movements

See also

Wikiquote has quotations related to: Resistance movement


  1. On the relation between military and civil resistance in occupied Norway 1940–45, see Magne Skodvin, "Norwegian Non-violent Resistance during the German Occupation", in Adam Roberts (ed.), The Strategy of Civilian Defence: Non-violent Resistance to Aggression, Faber, London, 1967, pp. 136–53. (Also published as Civilian Resistance as a National Defense, Harrisburg, USA: Stackpole Books, 1968; and, with a new Introduction on "Czechoslovakia and Civilian Defence", as Civilian Resistance as a National Defence, Harmondsworth, UK/Baltimore, USA: Penguin Books, 1969. ISBN 0-14-021080-6.)
  2. Rupert Ticehurst (1997) in his footnote 1 cites The life and works of Martens as detailed by V. Pustogarov, "Fyodor Fyodorovich Martens (1845–1909) – A Humanist of Modern Times", International Review of the Red Cross (IRRC), No. 312, May–June 1996, pp. 300–314.
  3. Ticehurst (1997) in his footnote 2 cites F. Kalshoven, Constraints on the Waging of War, Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987, p. 14.
  4. Gardam (1993), p. 91.
  5. Khan, Ali (Washburn University – School of Law). "A Theory of International Terrorism", Connecticut Law Review, Vol. 19, p. 945, 1987.
  6. Steve Pile (1997), “Opposition, political identities and spaces of resistance,” p. 3.
  7. Pile (1997), “Opposition, political identities and spaces of resistance,” pp. 5-7.
  8. “LGBT socialmovement”. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  9. "Anti-globalization movement". Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  10. "Internal resistance to South African apartheid". Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  11. "Protest art". Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  12. Gray-Rosendale, L. and Gruber, S. (2001), ALternative Rhetorics: challenges to the rhetorical tradition. New York: State University of New York Press. pp. 154-156.
  13. Michelle Hughes, "Social media and tobacco resistance control". Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  14. Merriam-Webster definition
  15. Gerald Seymour, Harry's Game, 1975.
  16. BBC guideline
  17. Perry, Simon (2011). All Who Came Before. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock. ISBN 978-1-60899-659-9.
  18. Willey, K., When the Sky Fell Down: The Destruction of the Tribes of the Sydney Region, 1788–1850s, Collins, Sydney, 1979
  19. Collins, D., An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Vol. 1, Cadell and Davies, London, 1798.


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