Regime Change: The Strategies and Potential of Nonviolent Struggle

Editors note: The following is an excerpt from chapter two of A Quiet Revolution: The First Palestinian Intifada and Nonviolent Resistance (New York: Nation Books, 2007; London 2008).

A Quite RevolutionRevolutionary violence was once considered the only way for oppressed peoples to change draconian circumstances . . . . Bloodshed often seemed warranted, especially when justified by the widely held judgment that what was taken by violence can only be retrieved by violence. It has become clear in recent decades, however, that armed insurrection is not the only route available for aggrieved groups and societies.

Nonviolent movements across the world today . . . have brought down communism, oligarchies, and totalitarianism. . . . Yet lack of understanding of nonviolent resistance as a category of struggle, or defense, is widespread. This gap in knowledge not only led to misconceptions about the first Palestinian intifada, creating missteps in policy responses, but it also hampered the fullest possible implementation of nonviolent struggle by the Palestinians after the mass movement took hold in 1987 in the Israeli-occupied territories.

Not All Conflicts Can Be “Solved”

When disputing parties possess severely asymmetrical power, the smaller, weaker side may find it difficult to obtain a hearing apart from staging a nonviolent struggle, which has the potential to bring parity to the unbalanced relationship. . . . Without such an undertaking, negotiations may eventuate, but would be ineffective on their own. Or, nonviolent resistance may be the only way to reach negotiations.

This insight evolved as commonplace wisdom during the 1960s U.S. civil rights movement. In even the most remote hamlets, sharecroppers understood that nonviolent struggle might be the only way to effect negotiations.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., articulated this realization in 1963:

“Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc.? Isn’t negotiation a better path? You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

The technique of nonviolent action carries within it the potential for benefiting both parties to a conflict, because it does not seek to accomplish its goals by wounding or harming the adversary except politically. By the 1970s, Boston scholar Gene Sharp had demonstrated that a move . . . to nonviolent struggle improves the odds of reaching negotiations and can lay the groundwork for reconciliation. . . . [N]onviolent struggle in the twentieth century has tended to rely strategically on clearly enunciating ultimate goals. This approach flows from a basic insight that one cannot expect the antagonists to see the dispute from the point of view of the nonviolent protagonists and to change behavior or alter policies and practices without full light being cast upon the underlying grievance. In nonviolent conflict, it is preferable that the adversary change from within — having become persuaded of the validity of the dissenters’ perspective or the cost of inaction — and accept or come to terms with the nonviolent challengers’ view. . . .

Long History of Nonviolent Struggle

Nonviolent resistance predates the time of Christ. In 411 B.C.E. in an Athens depleted by the . . . Peloponnesian War, Athenians paused for a theatrical festival. The sensation of the fête was Lysistrata, a mirthful and topical farce in which the comic genius Aristophanes devises a sex strike by the war-weary women of Athens to end hostilities. In the Roman Empire, Jews and Christians disobeyed the orders of the Caesar and his army. . . . Peasants have long used “go-slows,” underreported harvests, rumors and communications in covert language, evasion of taxes, and work stoppages. . . . They carried out these actions despite their illiteracy and isolation. . . .

Entitlements now considered to be universal human rights had first to be fought for through nonviolent struggle, for example, freedom from slavery and enfranchisement for the vote. Nineteenth-century movements on both sides of the Atlantic fought to abolish the slave trade with nonviolent action methods. Historian Carleton Mabee believes the first support for sit-ins and protest rides in the United States may have been in 1838, when the Antislavery Convention of American Women adopted such a policy for their work on abolition of slavery. . . . [A]s the twentieth century began women’s rights movements gained strength and fought for women’s suffrage with nonviolent action — utilizing petition drives, demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins — around the world. . . . The practice of nonviolent action developed during the twentieth century into a means of projecting immense and effective political power.

Although labor unions have used strikes throughout recorded history as nonviolent measures of economic noncooperation, countless indigenous struggles for justice with nonviolent means have gone unrecorded. Possibly because of deficiencies in comparative political analysis or linguistic barriers in understanding the history of ideas, extraordinary holes exist in the writing of history on nonviolent struggle. . . . For example, no English-language book offers an anatomy of the Norwegian nonviolent struggle that won the Nordic nation its independence from Sweden in 1905. The first extensive work on the various forms of nonviolent resistance against Hitler did not appear until 1985, when Jacques Semelin analyzed nonviolent resistance to the Nazis by teachers and church leaders in Norway, physicians in Holland, church leaders in Germany, academicians in Poland, Czech and Slovak students and professors, and strikes by industrial workers and miners in Belgium and France, during World War II.

A preference for military chronicles has greatly overshadowed the national European nonviolent mobilizations in opposition to the Nazis that required widespread involvement of the citizenry. The way Danish society unified to save its Jewish citizenry from Nazi removal and death led social philosopher Hannah Arendt to observe, “One is tempted to recommend the story as required reading in political science for all students who wish to learn something about the enormous power potential inherent in nonviolent action and in resistance to an opponent possessing vastly superior means of violence.”

The Boston Tea Party and resistance to the Stamp Act were only part of the political defiance of the British Crown by American colonists, but what happened in Boston harbor and the refusal to pay the importation stamps required by London are usually not explained to schoolchildren as nonviolent struggle — as civil disobedience or tax resistance. . . .

Two centuries later, from the 1980s into the twenty-first century, the televised spectacle of dictatorships hemorrhaging fascinated onlookers. Peoples everywhere watched authoritarian regimes tumbling or the populace refusing to obey the tyrant: the Polish Solidarity union 1980–89, the Philippines democracy struggle in 1986, the “mothers of the disappeared” in Argentina, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the struggles against political oppression in Serbia in 2000 and Ukraine in 2004. . . .

When constitutional measures fail, protection of representative democracy categorically demands a way of fighting without resort to violence. . . . When liberal democratic principles are threatened or grievances rub raw in representative systems, the people may turn to extraparliamentary nonviolent demonstrations, picketing, civil disobedience, strikes, and tax resistance. More than 3 million persons repeatedly marched in cities throughout France in April 2006 to protest a law that allowed the firing of workers aged twenty-six years or younger for any reason; under intense pressure, the government yielded. In Thailand that same spring, the premier surrendered his post after two months of large demonstrations, including round-the-clock gatherings of 100,000 citizens protesting corruption. In the United States, also in April, festive demonstrations in dozens of cities rallied millions in asking for fairness in immigration policy. . . . Such action techniques are not the possession of any ideology, nor are they the domain of the Left or the Right.

Little is known about what actually happens inside nonviolent social campaigns. . . . Take for example the U.S. civil rights movement. This was in fact a movement of movements, as each county, city, or region of a state produced homegrown community mobilizations with local leaders and organizers. Yet fewer than a dozen credible firsthand accounts from within the upheaval have appeared. Most studies by historians emphasize the leadership of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an eminently worthy subject, but not illuminating on questions of why local leadership was exceptionally strong in some places; how decisions were made; why distinctive action methods were newly developed. . . .

Despite deficits in documentation, it is now the case that concepts, knowledge, and skills related to nonviolent struggle are spreading more swiftly and widely than ever. . . . [E]lectronic technologies have opened the sluice gates of translation and circulation. . . .

Defining Nonviolent Movements: Behavior, not Belief

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi . . . never expected that a mass nationalist movement could be built on a credo of nonviolence. Drawing heavily from other historical examples of nonviolent struggle, Gandhi was a shrewd political operative, and saw nonviolent resistance as practical — the best way to reach popular national goals. He did not expect that all, or even most, individuals would be able to adhere to the intense commitments that he demanded for himself. Jawaharlal Nehru and members of the working committee of the Congress Party viewed nonviolent struggle not as a spiritual persuasion or ethical conviction, but as a pragmatic method for achieving the political goal of independence. . . . Gandhi — with few colleagues accepting his severe political, religious, and personal self-discipline — sought agreement on a policy of nonviolent action not as an ethic, but as a strategy. . . . The adoption of a policy of nonviolent action by those who did not share Gandhi’s personal spiritual beliefs and regimen was paramount for the successes of the decades-long mobilization. . . .

Offering the choice of action rather than inaction, and nonviolent rather than violent means of contention, nonviolent struggle balances political responsibility and ethics with the ultimate in efficacy and pragmatism. . . .

The supposition that nonviolent resistance only works against mild repression or with “gentlemanly” opponents, such as the British in India, holds no validity whatsoever. The British colonial authorities in Mandate Palestine made mass arrests and introduced the demolition of homes as punishment of suspected dissidents, practices that the Israelis now use. In some cases British troops fired at unarmed Palestinians. During roughly the same period in India, on April 13, 1919, soldiers under the orders of British Brigadier General Reginald E. Dyer fired on more than 20,000 unarmed Indian peasants celebrating a Hindu festival in a sequestered walled garden in Amritsar. They killed 379 people and wounded more than 1,000.

As a point of comparison, the Amritsar massacre resulted in more deaths and casualties than when, in 1960, South African troops under the apartheid regime opened fire on unarmed peaceful demonstrators, killing 72 (of whom 40 were women, and 8 were children) and wounding 186. The incident, known as the Sharpeville Massacre, led to militant uprisings across the country that in turn resulted in the government banning antiapartheid organizations. The ban marked the end of decades of disciplined nonviolent action against apartheid that began after 1912. The methods of the antiapartheid movement then became “mixed,” with Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, or MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), attempting armed struggle. . . . .

Yet reverberations from Sharpeville and its aftermath led to South Africa’s withdrawal from the British Commonwealth, severance of diplomatic ties with South Africa by European nations, Canada, and the United States, and boycotts of South African products. According to theologian Walter Wink, who conducted extensive interviews in the antiapartheid movement in South Africa in 1986, the most surprising result was that “a great many of the people simply do not know how to name their actual experiences with nonviolence.” A typical response to an inquiry about the action methods employed was “we tried [nonviolent resistance] for fifty years and it didn’t work. Sharpeville in 1960 proved to us that violence is the only way left.” As Wink continued examining the most effective approaches in challenging the apartheid government, he discovered that his respondents produced a remarkably long list of nonviolent actions: labor strikes, slowdowns, sit-downs, stoppages, and stay-aways; bus boycotts, consumer boycotts, and school boycotts; funeral demonstrations; noncooperation with government appointed functionaries; non-payment of rent; violation of government bans on peaceful meetings; defiance of segregation orders on beaches and restaurants, theaters, and hotels; and the shunning of black police and soldiers. This amounts to what is probably the largest grassroots eruption of diverse nonviolent strategies in a single struggle in human history! Yet these students, and many others we interviewed, both black and white, failed to identify these tactics as nonviolent and even bridled at the word.

Armed might and nonviolent action are often presumed not only to be distinct from each other, but also to be opposites. The relationship between them, however, is sometimes complex. This is not to advocate the “mixing” of strategies, a strategic liability of some Palestinian factions during the intifada. Violent struggle and nonviolent action work in different ways; the two are not supplementary or complementary and cannot be blended. The injection of violence into a struggle destroys the potential for involving an entire people in self-reliant civil resistance, and thus affects mobilization and recruitment. Their combination also defeats the strategic advantage of a disciplined nonviolent movement, whose restraint can stand in sharp contrast to violent reprisals from the target group. . . . A British theoretician of military strategy, Captain Sir Basil Liddell Hart, interrogated German military generals after World War II and found “violent forms of resistance had not been very effective and troublesome to them.” Yet the generals found it difficult to cope with the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance as practiced in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway. “They were experts in violence, and had been trained to deal with opponents who used that method. But other forms of resistance baffled them — and all the more in proportion as the methods were subtle and concealed. It was a relief to them when resistance becomes violent, and when nonviolent forms are mixed with guerrilla action, thus making it easier to combine drastic suppressive action against both at the same time.”

If nothing else, the target group of the nonviolent challengers in an acute conflict is more likely to concentrate its attention on their actual grievance when not under the threat of violent attack.

Transmission of Knowledge

Historian David Hardiman asks how to explain that on virtually every continent nonviolent movements for social and political change are at work . . . , all based at least in part on a body of knowledge consolidated in India during the first half of the twentieth century?

That body of knowledge was itself infused with methods from India’s past. Gandhi borrowed traditional cultural and religious customs, knowing the echo and resonance that they would have for the population. He reached back in time for the raw material of forms of mass collective action from India’s past in formulating his techniques of struggle, including a nineteenth-century indigo revolt, movements against landlords, and tax resistance campaigns — peasant rebellions that had won support from members of the elite. . . .

Historian Sudarshan Kapur shows a steady flow of African-American leaders traveled by steamer ship to India during the 1930s and 1940s to learn the theories and methods of the Indian independence movements. Upon their return to the United States, they gave lectures, wrote articles, preached, and passed key documents from hand to hand, to be studied by other black leaders. Their path exemplifies how the spread of knowledge concerning nonviolent action is often person to person.

Krishnalal Shridharani’s War without Violence is particularly significant among the books circulated by the African-American leaders. Shridharani, a Brahmin associate of Gandhi’s, was one of the original 79 adherents who trained with him for the 1930 Salt March and walked with him the 241 miles from Ahmedabad to the seacoast at Dandi. Derived from Shridharani’s doctoral dissertation at Columbia University and first published in 1939, War without Violence is a firsthand analysis of Gandhian theories and methods. During the 1940s, such notable U.S. black leaders as A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and James Farmer studied War without Violence. . . . Martin Luther King, Jr., studied Shridharani’s book during the Montgomery bus boycott, making it probably the single most influential document in the diffusion of knowledge from India to the United States and thence to the entire globe.

Transmission of knowledge from India by American black leaders is straightforward and indisputable. After King’s death, his own voluminous writings combined with Gandhi’s then-ninety volumes of mostly newspaper articles comprised a large collection, portions of which quietly spread into

Latin America and the Philippines in the 1970s and into Eastern Europe and elsewhere during the 1980s to be translated into dozens of languages. . . . It is now obvious that nonviolent resistance is not a Hindu specialization or technique solely effective in a Christian ethos; it has been practiced in many parts of the globe by atheists and Muslims and peoples of many other faiths, or none at all.

As access to the Internet broadens, wisdom is more accurately and exponentially spreading on how to plan and strategize the use of nonviolent sanctions. . . .

During the late 1990s in Eastern Europe, the Serbian people (especially students) employed in their struggle against the dictatorial Slobodan Milosevic the lessons learned and shared with them by the Czechs and Slovaks’ in their 1980s “Velvet Revolution.” Toward the end of the 1990s, the Serbian students had begun studying the academic writings of Gene Sharp in skills-training workshops led by Colonel Robert L. Helvey, a retired U.S. military officer. During 2002–3, the Serbian activists passed their knowledge and skills on to those in the Republic of Georgia (formerly Soviet Union) preparing for what would become the “Rose Revolution.” Azerbaijanis, Kazaks, Ukrainians, and Zimbabweans, among others, are scrutinizing what their Serbian and Georgian counterparts studied and learned.

In virtually every part of the globe, the period since the 1980s has seen major nonviolent struggles produce political results. Such held to be true in the Baltic states, what is now the Czech Republic, the former East Germany, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Philippines, Poland, the former Soviet Union, and South Africa. Struggles in recent years have also been efficacious, and without large numbers of fatalities.

Mary King is Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, University for Peace. She is also Distinguished Scholar, the American University Center for Global Peace, Washington, D.C. and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.