Posts Tagged ‘Civil disobedience’

The realism of nonviolent action

March 31, 2011

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All oppressive institutions depend upon the obedience of the subjugated class; when that obedience is withdrawn, the oppressor is no longer powerful.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?

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