I have been reading articles about civil resistance struggles that transformed into armed struggle when they were met with harsh repression. Northern Ireland (late 60s) and South Africa (early 60s) are two examples, while many others followed the same pattern.
The question that always comes to mind when I read about these fateful transitions is: What did they really expect would happen?
In the cases of Northern Ireland and South Africa, their resistance threatened regimes that relied on violent repression to maintain the status quo. In both of these countries, the people had suffered a long history of violent repression.
It seems like magical thinking to expect regimes that are maintained through violent repression are going to respond in any other way but violence when they are threatened. In reality, the more threatened these regimes are, the more violence they will use in response to this threat. Violence is what they know and they will do what they know.
The more important question that I don’t think was ever asked in these and similar struggles: if we make the shift to armed struggle, is this going to lessen or escalate the violent repression?
Fear and anger are understandable and appropriate when massacres like Sharpeville in South Africa and “Bloody Sunday” in Derry, Northern Ireland occur.
When violence of this kind is exposed, it does not mean that civil (or nonviolent) resistance has failed.
What it does mean is that you now know the level of violence your opponent is willing to use. If you are going to continue this struggle, you need to be prepared to face this level of violence – whether you choose armed struggle or civil resistance.
If you decide to continue with the fight, the most important question to ask is:
How do we prepare ourselves to be able to face this kind of repression?
This preparation will take time. During this time you can lay out strategies for civil resistance and armed struggle side-by-side.
Knowing what you now know about your opponent, you can ask:
– which strategies would be more effective against this kind of opponent and why?
– which strategies would lessen our losses and why?
– which strategies are appropriate for the level of resources that are available to us?
– how long will different strategies take and how can they be sustained over this period of time?
These are just a few of the many questions you will need to answer before you decide which strategy—armed struggle or civil resistance—you will use.
And when the time has come to renew the struggle, you will be much more prepared than you were initially.
I am very interested in having a conversation about which circumstances favor civil resistance and which favor armed struggle. I invite you to share your thoughts below.