By Jonathan Power*
LUND, Sweden. 5 September 2023 (IDN) — “1789 is a historic date, but it is not an historic example”. The French Revolution, violent to its fingertips, began with the highest motives, led by the most inspired and determined of people, but descended step by step into its self-created inferno where the revolution consumed its own children.
As Martin Luther King said, violence begets violence and, “The means and the ends must cohere. We will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means because the means represent the ideal in the making and the end in the process. And, ultimately, you can’t reach your good ends through evil means because the means represent the seed and the end the tree.”
According to Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, writing in the August 2014 edition of Foreign Affairs, “Between 1900 and 2006, campaigns of non-violent resistance against authoritarian regimes were twice as likely to succeed as violent movements. Non-violent resistance also increased the chances that the overthrow of a dictatorship would lead to peace and democratic rule. This was true even in highly authoritarian and repressive countries, where one might expect non-violent resistance to fail.”
Critics of non-violence are always swift to cite cases when non-violent campaigns were counterproductive- the student protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the failure of the Arab Spring where non-violent protests were hijacked by violent extremists, as in Syria, or were self-sabotaged by their leaders who had no strategy for the long term, as in Egypt.
More recently, in Ukraine, the ferment unleashed by those protesting against the rule of President Viktor Yanukovych, while achieving its aim of toppling him, was compromised by the infiltration of extreme rightists, which, in turn, worked to provoke Russian military intervention in the east. Needless to say, if President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had wanted to avoid a violent confrontation with Russia, he only had to say loud and clear that Ukraine would not seek entry into NATO. A non-violent gesture like this would have defused the war before it properly began. And the promise kept to President Mihail Gorbachev that NATO’s boundaries would not be pushed eastward.
No false modesty
All such criticisms are right. But just as violence and war often don’t succeed—as with Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and now eastern Ukraine—so there is no guarantee that a non-violent campaign will. But what non-violence can promise is that the numbers of innocent people killed or wounded will be far less than when violence is used. And when successful, it is easier to integrate the defeated into the new dispensation.
Practitioners of non-violence need to have no false modesty. According to the research of Chenoweth and Stephan, even when governments have chosen to violently repress resistance movements non-violent campaigns still succeed in achieving their goals almost half the time, whereas only 20% of violent movements have achieved their goals, because the vast majority of them were unable to produce the mass support or defections necessary to win. Even when non-violent campaigns fail much can still be achieved. Their research shows that countries that had experienced failed non-violent movements were still four times as likely to achieve democracy as countries where resistance movements resorted to violence at the onset.
“Civil resistance doesn’t succeed because it melts the hearts of dictators and their secret police. It succeeds because it is more likely than armed struggle to attract a larger and more diverse base of participants and impose unsustainable costs on a regime.”
The brutal, last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had no problem in the 1960s and 70s suppressing the opposition when it was centred on Islamist and Marxist-inspired guerrilla groups. But once large numbers of oil workers, bazaar merchants and students engaged in acts of collective non-violent resistance, including strikes, boycotts and protests the regime’s repressive apparatus became overstretched. The economy started to fall apart. Then the US, faced with the shah’s request for them to approve a bloody crackdown, made the decision to withdraw support even though he was considered to be a strategic ally. The Shah was forced to flee.
The two most important non-violent movements of our era were the struggle of American blacks for their civil rights under the leadership of Martin Luther King and the rise of the shipyard workers in Poland against their communist government. It was the defining moment when communism was undermined in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
In 1980, 16,000 workers went on strike at the Gdansk shipyard. This grabbed the headlines but in fact Polish labour groups had been quietly fomenting resistance for a decade. The trade union they formed, Solidarity, morphed into a widespread civil resistance movement, gradually undermining the government’s grip.
Eventually, 10 million Poles joined up. Constant strikes, demonstrations, the publishing of dissident newspapers and radical theatre performances in churches were their tools, backed up the preaching of Pope John Paul 11. Violence on both sides was minimal. Within a decade, in 1989, the regime agreed to semi-free elections. In 1990 Lech Walesa, the shipyard workers’ leader, was elected president.
We need to re-think how we help the fight for liberty at home and abroad. It is not guns and war that will do the trick. Rather it should be the iron fist, yes, but inside a velvet glove.
Copyright: Jonathan Power
*Jonathan Power was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. [IDN-InDepthNews]
Photo: Civil disobedience movement. Source: Getty images | The Week
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