The practicality of nonviolent civil resistance

Erica Chenoweth in this TED talk says that in the past 50 or so years, nonviolent civil resistance (or, as I prefer to call it, mass defiance) has a better track record of success than violent struggle for overthrowing oppressive governments and resisting conquest.

I am not a pacifist, but in recent years I have gotten out of the mindset that says that war is the baseline answer to oppression and aggression, and it is only the alternatives to war that must justify themselves.

The aim of your oppressor is to compel you to obey him.  The oppressor is defeated when he comes to realize that your obedience cannot be compelled.  The effective way to do that is to join with others in mass defiance.  To me, violence or the lack of violence are not the most important things.  The most important thing is a population that shows it cannot be compelled to submit.

What I have learned from reading the writings of Gene Sharp is that nonviolent struggle requires as much strategy and tactics as violent struggle.  Just going out and letting yourself be hit over the head doesn’t necessarily accomplish anything.  What counts, as he has pointed out, is to find ways to destroy the enemy’s legitimacy and fearsomeness.

Now there are circumstances in which this does not apply.  If the aim of your enemy is not to rule over you, but to destroy you or to drive you off your land, your only choices are to flee or fight.   Nonviolence resistance would not have worked for the Jews or gypsies against the Nazis.   But not every enemy is a Hitler.

I thank Mike Connelly for e-mailing me the link to the video.


Afterthoughts [9/22/14]

Unlike Gandhi and Dr. King, I am not a pacifist.   I believe in the right of self-defense.   I do not condemn anyone who takes up arms in self-defense or in defense of family, homeland or basic rights.

I do criticize the assumption that killing the oppressor is always the most practical means of achieving liberation.  When nonviolent tactics fail, the assumption often is that violence is necessary; when violent tactics fail, the assumption often is that redoubled violence is necessary.

The advantage of mass defiance as a political tactic is that it deprives the oppressor of legitimacy, while showing that the oppressor is not all-powerful.  I don’t think strict non-violence is necessary to the success of mass defiance, provided that the rebels can show that they have not been the ones to initiate violence.

The problem with conventional warfare is that the enemy usually has overwhelming superiority in the use of deadly force; the problem with terrorism (apart from morality) is that it restores legitimacy to the enemy.

Mass defiance can fail, but so can violent uprising and guerrilla warfare.   I recommend Gene Sharp’s two books,  From Dictatorship to Democracy and The Politics of Non-Violent Action, for thoughts on the strategy and tactics that make mass defiance succeed.

Erica Chenoweth says that as few as 3.5 percent of a population can lead a successful campaign of mass defiance.  That’s a relatively large number, and presumably the 3.5 percent has the support of a silent majority.

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4 Responses to “The practicality of nonviolent civil resistance”

  1. Jim Roth Says:

    How can you distinguish who is a Hitler and who is not?


  2. peteybee Says:

    Reblogged this on Spread An Idea and commented:
    Very interesting stuff. Although I have a hard time understanding how the process of change in Serbia was non-violent.


  3. philebersole Says:

    To Jim Roth:

    Hitler was an unusual person in modern European history. He was (1) a totalitarian dictator who sought to enforce unquestioning obedience by means of lawless violence, (2) a political ruler with the ambition and means to achieve world domination and (3) a conqueror who sought “living space” by waging wars of extermination.

    A person can be the equivalent of a Hitler, as far as you’re concerned, if his aim is to kill or get rid of the members of your nation, tribe, race, religion or ethnic group. There is no nonviolent way, that I can see, of resisting such a person.

    The situation is different if your enemy’s aim is merely to rule over your group. You defeat your enemy by showing that he can’t compel obedience.

    Gene Sharp, in his book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, gave examples of Norwegians, Danes and even Germans winning limited victories in nonviolent defiance of the Nazis, because Hitler wanted the allegiance of these groups.

    Their tactics would not have worked, in my opinion, for Poles, Ukrainians or Russians because Hitler’s intention was to kill and starve them to make room for Germans.

    This is an analytical distinction, not a moral distinction. The Boer rulers of South Africa were cruel and racist, but they were defeated by a campaign of mass defiance because they wanted to rule over the black majority, not exterminate it.

    To peteybee:

    I think what Chenoweth meant in regard to Serbia was the overthrow of the Milosevic government by the Serbian people, not the bombing campaign and other military interventions that led up to it.


  4. peteybee Says:


    I get that. It just seems like she is making a clean analytical division between the long, violent, and successful war waged by Croatians, Bosnians, etc, in former Yugoslavia — vs the non-violent change that followed it within the remaining country of Serbia. I feel like that logic cuts away most of what happened there. Seems like she could have come up with a stronger example to lead with.

    Regardless, I am interested in learning more about Chenoweth’s research — thanks!


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