While many if not all ADPSR members support nonviolence as the “right” way to challenge injustice, the new book “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict” by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth argues powerfully that nonviolence is also a more effective way to challenge injustice than violence. Nonviolence actually works better than violence. That’s news.
I think many people have assumed that nonviolence is often too limited in its capabilities or too hard to pursue. Perhaps some people have accepted that if things get really bad for people under oppression it’s OK to take up arms. The authors don’t debate the morality of taking up arms, but they demonstrate that a resistance movement is far more likely to lose if they move to violence rather than pursuing nonviolence. After a comprehensive survey of 323 violent and nonviolent resistance movements of the 20th century, they conclude that nonviolent resistance is far more successful as a strategy.
Of course nonviolent resistance requires different methods to succeed than violent revolution. In particular, it needs the support of many and diverse segments of the civilian population. Based on that, a key factor in success is often if there is enough connection between the supporters of the civil resistance and the repressive regime’s armed forces to get elements of the armed forces to switch sides. They found that no matter how repressive the regime being challenged, nonviolence was able to make waves of violent repression backfire if the civil population was able to switch tactics and maintain support – for instance, dropping massive street rallies (which are often shot at by security forces) and switching to stay-aways or boycotts, which can shut down a regime’s entire economic life if a majority of society participates.
Another noteworthy finding was that nonviolent insurgencies are far more likely than violent ones to lead to democratic self-rule and domestic peace. The explanations there aren’t hard to find: after a violent insurgency, you have people in power who learned that violence works – why would they stop using it just because they are now in power? And if a violent takeover by one disposed group worked once, it legitimizes a path for others to follow. (On the topic of the U.S. founders, who led a violent insurgency against British rule, the authors note that the revolution was presaged by a decade of nonviolent resistance to British taxes and other policies.) It makes me think that violence is in fact not the last resort of a worthy cause facing overwhelming repression, but more often than not the choice of a small faction who can’t imagine that the broad population will support them but who still want to seize an unfair share of power for themselves.
One question I’d like to ask the authors is what role, if any, is played by public spaces and civil landmarks in the progress of nonviolent campaigns. Could we survey their vast database of nonviolent resistance movements and look for patterns in where public gatherings occurred? For instance, is holding a key locale characteristic of successful movements, as with Tahrir Square in the recent Egyptian revolution? And conversely, was the destruction of the monument at Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain – and losing it to pedestrians – likely a key strategy to the repression of the popular movement there?