Posts Tagged ‘Nonviolent struggle’

Donald Trump and the limits of protest

March 23, 2016

I admired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was alive.   I admire the thinking of Gene Sharp.  I think civil disobedience is justified when all else fails.

But I do not agree with the non-violent protests that shut down an Arizona highway near a Donald Trump campaign events, nor with other protests intended to prevent Trump from speaking.

Dr. King’s non-violent protests were strategic attacks on structures of power.  His protests succeeded to the extent that people in power concluded it would cost them less, in terms of damage to profits and reputation, to give in to his demands than to fight them.

They also succeeded to the extent that Dr. King was able to convince the larger American public that his cause was just, and his protests were disciplined and organized as to give his followers the moral high ground.

Dr. King had specific lists of demands.  His opponents always knew what they had to do in order to shut off the protests.

trumpblock20Protestors who try to shut down Donald Trump rallies do not hurt either Trump’s reputation nor his profits.  Instead they solidify Trump’s support, while inconveniencing and alienating the general public.

Those protestors are not defending their Constitutional rights.  Instead they are denying Trump his right of free speech and his followers their right to peaceably assemble.

Yes, I know the Constitutional rights of Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and other groups have not been respected, and that Donald Trump himself is not a friend of civil liberties.  That does not mean that he and his followers are not entitled to hold meetings or that there is anything to be gained in trying to deny them that right.


The practicality of nonviolent civil resistance

September 21, 2014

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.


Rest in peace, Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

December 6, 2013


My morning newspaper describes Nelson Mandela as a pacifist, which he was not.  He rejected hatred, but not armed struggle.  His achievement was that he was a leader of a mass movement which, unlike so many terrorist and “liberation” struggles of his day and ours,  fought successfully for freedom and democracy.

South Africa today is a deeply troubled country, with a high crime rate and extremes of rich and poor, but still a free country that is hugely better off than under the white supremacist oligarchy.


Saving future generations from ourselves

September 29, 2013

Bill Moyers interviewed Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace on his show Friday.  The interview is worth watching both as an informative discussion of an urgent problem and as a portrait of a remarkable and charismatic individual.   The following is Moyers and Company’s description of the show.

As of this moment Vladimir Putin’s government is holding in custody the Arctic Sunrise, the command ship of the environmental activist organization Greenpeace International. The ship was seized by armed members of the Russian Coast Guard on Sept. 19 after Greenpeace activists tried to board an offshore oil platform as a protest against drilling for fossil fuels in the fragile environment of the Arctic, where global warming has reduced the sea ice cover 40 percent since 1980.

Naidoo tells Bill, “If there’s injustice in the world, those of us that have the ability to witness it and to record it, document it and tell the world what is happening have a moral responsibility to do that. Then, of course, it’s left up to those that are receiving that knowledge to make the moral choice about whether they want to stand up against the injustice or observe it.”

From his teenage years in South Africa, Naidoo was a vocal and powerful opponent of apartheid, incarcerated and beaten so often he finally fled to Britain, where he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford.  When apartheid ended, Naidoo went back to South Africa and became a prominent human rights activist with a growing concern for the impact of climate change on impoverished people of color.  In 2009, he brought his negotiating and advocacy skills to the leadership of Greenpeace International, now a worldwide organization of three million members.

Click on BBC News for more about the oil drilling protest in the Russian Arctic.

Hat tip for the video link to Jack Clontz.

Gene Sharp’s revolution handbook

April 14, 2012

I just finished reading From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp, the great strategist of nonviolent struggle.  Like the great Prussian military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, his strategy and tactics are directed against the mind of the enemy.  An enemy is defeated when they are no longer willing to fight.  A government is defeated when people are no longer willing to obey it, and this can be accomplished, Sharp claims, without having to kill people in large numbers.

When I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s, there was a story that at some point in the Russian history course taught by Professor Petrovich, he would throw a chair to the side of the room.   Supposedly he was making a point about revolution.   I took the course, and the chair-throwing apparently was an urban legend, but the point he made was an important one.

GeneSharp51aSjpXTx1L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200DictatroshiptoDemocracy_Revolution does not come, he said, when you have a privileged aristocracy, dancing to Strauss waltzes, who are suddenly overthrown by Jacobins or Bolsheviks, and here is where he would have tossed the chair to one side.  No, he said, revolution comes when a society is on the verge of collapse, and here he would have balanced a chair on one leg with one finger, and it loses its last support – here he would have let the chair fall.

That is surely true.  Governments can govern only because people obey them.  They fall when their people cease to obey them.  That is what happened to the King of France in 1789, the Tsar of Russia in 1917 and the Shah of Iran in 1989.   Gene Sharp says that the way to overthrow a despotic government is to undermine the public’s habits of fear and obedience, and to deprive it of the resources it needs to govern.

In From Dictatorship to Democracy, originally published in 1990, and The Politics of Nonviolent Action, published in 1973, he listed 198 different tactics by which this could be accomplished, including public protests, strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience and creation of parallel institutions.  Here are his broad principles.

Develop a strategy for winning freedom and a vision of the society you want.

Overcome fear by small acts of resistance.

Use colors and symbols to demonstrate unity of resistance.

Learn from historical examples of the successes of non-violent movements.

Use non-violent “weapons.”

Identify the dictatorship’s pillars of support and develop a strategy for undermining each.

Use oppressive or brutal acts by the regime as a recruiting tool for your movement.

Isolate or remove from the movement people who use or advocate violence.

via BBC News.

Back in the 1950s, I never would have thought these tactics would work against a ruthless totalitarian government such as the Soviet Union, which had the power to sniff out and suppress the slightest dissent.  I had to change my mind after the Soviet government did fall, simply because it lost the authority and power to compel obedience.   On the whole, nonviolent fighters have a better record of success than the advocates of terrorism and guerrilla warfare.

Sharp argued nonviolent struggle requires as much strategic planning and tactical discipline as military action.  Superior ethics and morality will not in themselves bring victory.  You need to be as tough-minded as the community organizer Saul Alinsky, who in his way was a master of nonviolent struggle.  But while there are many academies where you can learn military science, there are few academies where you can learn the strategy and tactics of nonviolent struggle.  I used to think proposals to establish a national Peace Academy or Department of Peace were naive, but I know think such proposals might be more than mere sentimental gestures.


Nonviolent soldier of Islam

October 23, 2011

I think of Islam as a warrior religion.  My mental picture of Mohammed is a man on horseback, sword in hand.  So I was astonished to read A Man to Match His Mountains: Badshah Khan, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam, which tells the story Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a 20th century Muslim leader of nonviolent struggle.

Known as the “Frontier Gandhi,” Ghaffar Khan led the Pathans (Pushtuns), one of the most warlike people who ever lived, in nonviolent struggle against British rule and then for autonomy within Pakistan.

The Pathans are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the northwest border region of what is now Pakistan.  They have a reputation for being utterly fearless in battle and never allowing an insult or injury to go unavenged.  A nonviolent Pathan would have seemed as much a contradiction in terms in early 20th century India as a nonviolent Comanche or Apache in late 19th century North America.

Yet  Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Badshah was a title, like Mahatma) organized hundreds of thousands of Pathans into what was literally a nonviolent army.  His Khudai Khidmatgar had uniforms, military ranks, military drills and discipline, even a drum and bagpipe corps, but no weapons.  Weaponless, they endured beatings and imprisonment, and walked into machine gun fire in their struggle for freedom.

The Khudai Khidmatgar, a nonviolent army

Ghaffar Khan was born in 1890 into a well-to-do Pathan family in the Northwest Frontier Province of British India.  A British missionary arranged scholarships for him to study in England, but his family influenced him to turn them down, lest he be estranged from traditional values.  Instead he enlisted in the Guides, an auxiliary force to the British army in India.  He found the British treated Indians with contempt, and he resigned.

He started a new career as a reformer, organizing village schools.  If the authorities had allowed him to do this, his exploits might have ended there.  But the powers that be, both British and native, felt that education of the common people was a threat to their power.  They had him repeatedly imprisoned and exiled.  After a number of years he made contact with the Indian National Congress, and met Gandhi.  He learned Gandhi’s techniques of nonviolent resistance, and put them into practice himself.  He said, however, that he drew his inspiration for nonviolent struggle from the Koran, particularly the early prophecies drawn from the period when Mohammed and his early followers persisted under persecution.

One of the criticisms sometimes made of Gandhi is that nonviolent struggle would not avail against a really ruthless enemy, such as Hitler’s Nazis or Stalin’s Communists.  British repression fell short of what the Nazis and Communists did, but it was brutal enough.  The British destroyed whole villages for disobedience, they brutally beat anyone in their path, they imprisoned Ghaffar Khan and others without charging them with any crimes and they sometimes killed people indiscriminately.  And, like the Nazis and Communists, they feared any independent action by people they ruled.  Ghaffar Khan did not begin as a rebel against the British when he started his village schools.  The British made him a rebel when they put him in prison for trying to raise up his people.

I have read translations of the Koran, and, to me, its message is not a pacifistic one.  There are passages that could be quoted to justify military aggression and persecution, but, for me, the predominant message is to live in peace if you can, but be ready to fight unrelentingly if you have to.  I agree with this message, but it is not a pacifist one.

But then, Gandhi drew inspiration from the Bhagavad-Gita, whose conclusion is that the duty of Ajuna the charioteer as a warrior is to fight and obey orders, even in what he considers an unjust war.  And, for that matter, Christians and Jews are highly selective in their reading of the Mosaic Code.  I don’t say that Ghaffar Khan or Gandhi misinterpreted their sacred scriptures, only that how you interpret scripture depends on the values you bring to it as well as what the words say.

Gandhi and Ghaffar Khan both made a distinction between the “nonviolence of weakness” and the “nonviolence of strength.”  They said there is no value in being nonviolent if you are afraid to fight.  In fact, it is better to fight violently than to submit to wrong.  That is how Gandhi justified urging Indians to enlist in the British army during the Boer War and First World War.  He believed that you have to first be capable of fighting in order to meaningfully renounce violence.

Ghaffar Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgar show that the distance between brave, disciplined warriors and brave disciplined pacifists is small compared to the difference between both types of person and the average risk-averse, comfort-seeking person such as myself.