Nonviolent Resistance In History

Nonviolent Resistance In HistoryRegime changes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and other Mideast nations raise the question of whether nonviolent resistance is more effective than armed combat in winning revolutionary struggles. Historically, the iconic revolutions of the Left – the Russian Revolution, Mao’s success in China, Castro’s victory in Cuba – all required military action. And the most recent examples of nonviolent resistance – the Iranian revolution and the “people power” overthrow of Marcos in the Phillipines – did not turn out as those taking to the streets hoped.

Yet after reading Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan’s Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia Studies in Terrorism and Irregular Warfare), the strategic advantages of nonviolent campaigns appear beyond dispute. The book offers a detailed analysis of why revolutionary struggles succeed or fail, even creating statistical models to prove their arguments. By identifying the criteria that most often determine outcomes of revolutionary struggles, the book also helps us understand which regime change movements will likely achieve their goals.

Among Mao Zedong’s best-known quotes is “Every Communist must grasp the truth. Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Many believe revolutionary struggles against brutal despots require violence, as they do not give up power willingly.

But as much as the Left has romanticized Castro’s armed overthrow of the Bautista regime, and Ho Chi Minh’s military defeat of the United States to unite Vietnam, in most cases violence is less likely to achieve revolutionary change than nonviolent strategies. And after reading Why Civil Resistance Works, the reason is somewhat obvious.

Broad Participation is Key

Using the Iranian Revolution, the “people power” movement in the Philippines, the first Palestinian Intifada, and the Burmese uprising of 1988-90 as case studies, the authors show how the single ingredient that most determines the success of revolutionary struggles is broad participation across diverse constituencies. And because nonviolent strategies are more effective at enlisting participation – they are easier to join, involve less physical risk, and can include those physically unable to carry and use weapons –such activism has a far greater chance of success.

randy shawWe saw this most notably in Egypt. Despite repression from the Mubarak government, protesters did not turn to violence and the throngs of people coming to Tahrir continued to grow. By keeping barriers to participation low, the revolutionary movement in Egypt grew far beyond the numbers that would have joined an armed struggle.

A corollary to the value of nonviolent struggles is its greater ability to secure the non-opposition, if not support, of security forces. In Egypt, the military did not protect Mubarak as it might have done had its forces been the target of violence.

The authors also provide ample support for the conclusion that nonviolent campaigns are also more likely to secure international support. This was arguably not the case in Libya, where NATO effectively joined an outgunned armed struggle and its intervention was the only reason Gaddafi’s regime fell. But overall, struggles that are seen as primarily violent have less ability to secure the international support necessary to win.

A great advantage of nonviolent campaigns is that they are far harder to conclusively defeat. For example, violent efforts in Colombia and Peru were suppressed by the regime’s ability to outgun the opposition; but the mass killings of nonviolent protesters typically creates a backlash that boosts the revolutionary movement.

The Curious Cases of Iran and the Phillipines

Those who watched the unfolding of the Iranian revolution and “people power” in the Philippines may question the authors’ conclusion that nonviolence is not only more likely to bring victory, but also more likely to result in achieving protesters goals.

The book reminds us of the critical public role that Ayatollah Khomeini and his religious allies always played in the Iranian Revolution. What has happened to Iran since the 1979 revolution is a tragedy, and the authors note that nonviolent revolutions do not always bring democracy.

Fortunately, the authors remind us of the deplorable role played by the United States in creating the situation that could lead to Iran’s transformation into a non-democratic theocracy. Not only did the CIA overthrow a democratically-elected Iranian leader (who had nationalized the oil fields) so that we could install the Shah.

But here’s Jimmy Carter, a terrible President and human rights hypocrite while in office, toasting the Shah when he visited the White House in 1977: “Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world. This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership and to the respect and the admiration and love which your people give you.”

Carter’s words gave the Shah a green light for intensified repression, fanning the flames of revolution.

The outcome of “people power” in the Philippines was also disappointing, though the failure of Cory Aquino’s democratic government to follow through on desperately needed land reforms is not addressed in the book. Those who question the authors’ conclusions could argue that nonviolent revolutions led to disappointing outcomes in both Iran and the Philippines and that this could well prove true in Egypt.

randy shawBased on the authors’ criteria for success, Libya seems like a classic case for future failure, though only time will tell.

While a bit academic, Why Civil Resistance Works is a thought-provoking book that should have people debating revolutionary tactics late into the night.

Randy Shaw
Beyond Chron

Randy Shaw’s most recent book is Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.


  1. says


    Your first paragraph was great, then omygod!
    Please, context and its times are all, not studies.

    I met with the Vietnamese in 1968, from whom I learned strategy. Later I wrote in www. (V refers to Vietnamese, A to Americans):

    We are americans, We mean action.
    By our acts we are defined,
    but every act creates a faction,
    Thus by our acts we are confined.

    Who demonstrate peaceably with babies in their arms
    are peaceful demonstrators.
    Who sit down and are dragged away
    are sit-inners.
    Who wish to elect the antiwar candidate McCarthy
    are those who “clean up for Gene.”
    Who fight in the streets are
    (obviously) street fighters.
    Who organize communities
    are community organizers.
    Who perform for the televised world,
    antic, stoned, satiric,
    are Yippies.

    Being is doing. See Sartre.

    A festival of tactics!
    Surely you are rich in style.

    Rich in inspiration. Rich in ways to disagree.
    Rich in squabble, ruckus, confrontation.

    We too often disagree.
    Alas (perhaps) we have no Yippies.

    Our peaceful spurn our militants.
    Our militants will not be seen
    with those who would Clean Up for Gene.
    Our electoral refuse to lie
    down with our sit-inners.
    Our Yippies are emotion freaks
    who treat the serious like sinners.

    Of Committees we know you have no Central.

    And of Bodies no Coordinating.
    Our Categories are not yours:
    peasants, workers, women, bourgeoisie.
    We cut our uniforms to fit our feelings:
    redemptive suffering, appeal to reason,
    conversion by example, public outrage,
    self-defense, necessary force.

    So. As your hippies say, you each do your own thing?

    Far worse.
    We each do our own Right Thing
    which no one else is good as.

    Though it took us several thousand years to learn,
    We find there are times when
    one demonstration of women and babies
    is worth five guerrilla attacks,
    one guerrilla attack worth five public statements,
    one public statement worth five bombings,
    one bombing worth five meetings in Paris,
    one meeting in Paris worth five demonstrations of women and babies.
    Depending on the moment and the correlation of forces.

    Try telling that to!
    [each yells the name
    of someone else’s organization]

    No wonder your country has invented
    more religions than any other.
    [internal disagreement]
    Except perhaps India.

    After that meeting I spoke on the steps of Sproul Hall in Berkeley. I said:“What did we learn?There is no such thing as a revolutionary tactic. One group in the NLF doesn’t call another finks for holding a peaceful demonstration. They don’t yell ‘anarchists!’ at those who fight in the streets. They don’t get in a lather over who’s the most righteous. They don’t define their lives by the tactics they use. They see what they do as a longer-than-lifelong struggle to win.”

    Sometimes non-violence works, sometimes it doesn’t. Please do not champion one tactic over another. I was Cesar’s press representative on the peregrinacion to Sacramento. I was a leader of Stop the Draft Week in Oakland.

    And what Left exactly “romanticized” the Cuban Revolution and how did they do it? Castro had the support of the Havana Lawn Tennis Club. The umbrella doesn’t get bigger than that.

    Armed struggle is not fun. Nor is resistance of any kind. It’s what’s forced upon the resisters by those they resist. Please do not lecture to the oppressed. Egypt may turn out badly and Libya well.

    In struggle,
    Terence Cannon

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