The realism of nonviolent action

There is a mindset that identifies violence with practicality.  People who think this way regard boycotts, peaceful protests and civil disobedience of an oppressor as woolly-minded idealism, and assassination, terror and military force as hard-headed realism.  They become impatient with negotiation and diplomacy when they fail to bring about immediate results, but believe in responding to the failures of military action with redoubled military action.

Gene Sharp, in 2009

I used to think a little bit that way myself.  I of course admired Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., but I thought they were special cases because they appealed to humanitarian public opinion in the British and American democracies.  To deal with a truly ruthless enemy, such as Hitler or Stalin, required armed force or even the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Gene Sharp wrote The Politics of Nonviolent Action in 1973 to challenge that kind of thinking.  I never read it when it first came out.  My interest was aroused when I learned that it was used as a tactical manual by Egyptian protesters who overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Sharp contended that nonviolent action was as effective and realistic a means of struggle as war.  He intended his book to inspire the study of nonviolent strategy and tactics what Clausewitz and other military thinkers did for the study war.  The introduction was written by Thomas C. Schelling, a noted theorist of game theory and military strategy who was noted for his cold-blooded logic.  He praised Sharp for his dispassionate and realistic approach.

Sharp was to nonviolence was Clausewitz was to war.  Like Clausewitz, he said strategy and tactics were aimed at the will of the opponent.  Although Sharp was a conscientious objector, he insisted that you don’t have to be a religious pacifist to favor nonviolent struggle; there are many pragmatic reasons for doing so, he said.

All oppressive institutions depend upon the obedience of the subjugated class; when that obedience is withdrawn, the oppressor is no longer powerful.  And in Sharp’s view, the nonviolent fighter can win over or divide the opposition while a violent fighter unites it.

Oppressive institutions fear nonviolent action more than violence, Sharp contended.  That’s why agents provocateurs always try to instigate violence.  Sharp said rulers prefer violent to nonviolent opponents because they know better how to deal with the former than the latter.  If nonviolent resistance were weak and ineffectual, why wouldn’t the informers and infiltrators encourage it?

He listed historical examples of 198 different methods of nonviolent struggle, under the broad headings of political protest, noncooperation, economic boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience and nonviolent political intervention.

Sharp described the resistance of the American colonists to the British crown prior to the American Revolution.  Their tactics of economic boycott, establishment of a parallel government and social ostracism of their opponents were effective, he wrote; if the clash at Lexington and Concord could have been avoided, the colonists might well have won all their objectives except formal independence without war.

Nonviolent methods brought about the fall of the Russian Tsar, Sharp wrote.  Radical terrorists achieved nothing through assassination of Tsar Alexander II or oppressive Russian officials save to alienate public opinion.  But when Russian imperial troops in 1905 fired on Father Gapon’s peaceful petitioners at the Winter Palace, Tsar Nicholas II lost the loyalty of a large part of the Russian people.

The abortive 1905 revolution and the 1917 February revolution in Russia were partly violent and partly nonviolent, but Sharp contended that the nonviolent aspect was decisive.  Tsar Nicholas II granted a constitution in 1905 not because his troops were defeated by the revolutionaries, but because he could not govern with factories and railroads shut down by strikes, local governments refusing to recognize his authority and troops in many cases refusing to shoot strikers and protesters.  He abdicated early in 1917 because his troops would not obey him.

It is true that the Bolsheviks imposed their rule on Russia through unremitting and unrestricted violence, ruthlessly crushing strikes and protests.  Sharp doesn’t claim that nonviolent fighters always win.  In this case, though, they could justifiably claim to be defending Russian working people against foreign and right-wing armies.  And in the end, the most effective opponents of the Soviet dictatorship were Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel.

Sharp cited numerous examples of nonviolent tactics used against Nazi Germany.  One was a successful protest by the German Catholic bishops against plans to euthanize the incurably ill; another was a successful public protest by German women against the deportation of their Jewish husbands.

Norwegian school teachers under the German occupation refused to join the Nazi teachers’ union or teach fascist doctrine; they all signed their names to a protest, and were all sent to an Arctic prison camp.  The new teachers who were hired did the same thing.  After eight months, the Nazis backed down and released the imprisoned teachers.  Nonviolent resisters did not threaten the power of the Nazis, but that resistance was possible at all is remarkable and important.

Drawing on these lesson, Sharp concludes his book with a manual for the leader of a nonviolent movement, drawing from the experience of Gandhi, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Chief Luthuli’s anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and elsehwere.   He dealt with such questions as discipline, appeal to public opinion, response to repression, and bouncing back from defeat.

He wrote that the opposition will try to to arrest or immobilize the movement’s known leaders, so that it is important to have several layers of replacement leaders available to step in.  He said nonviolent leaders should forgo secrecy.  Openness makes for trust, while secrecy makes the nonviolent movement vulnerable to informers and infiltrators.

One of the advantages of nonviolent struggle is that it divides the opposition, and one of the disadvantage of violence is that it unites unites.  An opponent may make a cost-benefit analysis that shows yielding is more advantageous than resisting; after blood has been shed, it is very difficult to think that way.  Nonviolence makes possible a victory without implanting in the loser a desire for revenge.

Sharp said nonviolent struggle can win in three ways – by converting the opponent, by persuading the opponent to compromise and by “nonviolent coercion.”

I am not a pacifist, but the historical record of the 20th century shows that the success rate of nonviolent struggle compares well with wars of national liberation if you define success not only as achieving power, but accomplishing one’s original objectives.  A nonviolent leader cannot compel obedience; the leader must have the understanding and support of the followers at all times.

The Egyptian protesters have shown what a determined and disciplined people can do.  Maybe in the end their victory will be snatched from them by the Egyptian military, but as things look now, the outlook seems brighter in Egypt than in, say, Libya.

Click on Nonviolent resistance to Hitler? for some afterthoughts.  [Added 6/27/12]

Click on Gene Sharp, the Egyptian Revolt’s Prophet of Nonviolence for a feature article in The Daily Beast, an on-line newspaper.

Click on Gene Sharp: A dictator’s worst nightmare for a good profile by CNN. [Added 6/27/12]

Click on The Methods of Nonviolent Action for Sharp’s complete list of 198 techniques of nonviolent political action.

[Added 10/27/11]  A Solidarity Statement from Cairo, sent to the Occupy Wall Street protesters on Oct. 25, 2011, discusses the limits of nonviolent action.

We faced such direct and indirect violence, and continue to face it.  Those who said that the Egyptian revolution was peaceful did not see the horrors that police visited upon us, nor did they see the resistance and even force that revolutionaries used against the police to defend their tentative occupations and spaces.  By the government’s own admission, 99 police stations were put to the torch, thousands of police cars were destroyed, and all of the ruling party’s offices around Egypt were burned down.  Barricades were erected, officers were beaten back and pelted with rocks even as they fired tear gas and live ammunition on us.  But at the end of the day on the 28th of January they retreated, and we had won our cities.

It is not our desire to participate in violence, but it is even less our desire to lose.  If we do not resist, actively, when they come to take what we have won back, then we will surely lose.  Do not confuse the tactics that we used when we shouted “peaceful” with fetishizing nonviolence; if the state had given up immediately we would have been overjoyed, but as they sought to abuse us, beat us, kill us, we knew that there was no other option than to fight back.  Had we laid down and allowed ourselves to be arrested, tortured, and martyred to “make a point”, we would be no less bloodied, beaten and dead.  Be prepared to defend these things you have occupied, that you are building, because, after everything else has been taken from us, these reclaimed spaces are so very precious.

via Solidarity Statement From Cairo.

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