When I was first introduced to the idea of nonviolent resistance (now called civil resistance) in the early 1980s, there was a tendency by those who were promoting this form of struggle sometimes to overstate the case for its effectiveness. It was understandable back then—nonviolent struggle was ignored by the media, government and academic institutions as well.
We had to make the most of every example we had.
We would claim that Gandhi and his followers freed India, without mentioning that there was a violent movement that was also working for Indian independence. We would claim the nonviolent civil rights movement brought about many changes neglecting to mention Malcom X or the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. We claimed nonviolent struggle waged by the ANC freed South Africa, without mentioning the decades the ANC waged an armed struggle (Umkhonto we Sizwe). You get the point.
Things have changed in the last 20 years or so.
We no longer need to feel defensive or protective of nonviolent struggle.
We no longer need to hope that our intuition that nonviolent struggle is powerful was correct.
We no longer need to believe in the vision of Gene Sharp.
Here is a lecture Professor Sharp gave on The Power Potential of Nonviolent Struggle in 1990
In this 58 minute video, you will hear the vision I shared. Just watch a few minutes and see what you think.
We are beginning to develop resources which show the real power of nonviolent struggle.
There are enough people studying and writing about all the examples of effective civil resistance that we can now have more nuanced discussions, both in academia and in activist communities.
In Recovering Nonviolent History (edited by Maciel Bartkowski), there is an analysis of the important role played by civil resistance in what are usually thought of as armed struggles, such as the wars for independence in Kosovo, Bangladesh and the American colonies against the British.
Civil Resistance & Political Power (edited by Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash), contains an analysis of campaigns where their ineffectiveness led to armed struggle (Northern Ireland and South Africa), campaigns that were violently crushed (Tiananmen Square and Burma), and other campaigns that were waged successfully.
Civil Resistance and Conflict Transformation (edited by Veronique Dudouet), contains an analysis of campaigns that made the shift from violent struggle to nonviolent struggle, such as the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico and the Maoist guerilla movement in Nepal.
Nonviolent resistance now has a strong enough foundation of scholarship to be evaluated on its merits, just as we do with military campaigns (wars) and armed guerilla insurgencies.
This was not possible 30 years ago, when this history had not been written and studied. Violent struggle was analyzed by looking at strategies and tactics used and which worked in which condition and which didn’t. When it came to nonviolent struggle, any defeats meant that this way of struggle did not work. Nonviolent struggle was not taken seriously.
The most exciting recent study was done by Erica Chenoweth & Maria Stephan—Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. In this book, Chenoweth and Stephan compare 325 violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns between 1900 and and 2006. They found that those using nonviolent resistance were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success!
Erica gave a TedTalk on on her findings:
These are very exciting times for those of us who have been patiently waiting for the rest of the world to understand what we knew deep down, but could not prove—CIVIL RESISTANCE WORKS!
Not all the time, but as more people study its history and others apply what is learned, its power will grow with each passing year.