Category Archives: Nonviolence

Book review. Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

Book review. Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
October 2020

The basic argument of this book is very simple. Contrary to the ‘persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish’, Dutch author Rutger Bregman argues that ‘most people, deep down, are pretty decent.’

The assumption of human selfishness underpins huge portions of mainstream political and economic thinking, including the influential veneer theory – ‘the notion that civilisation is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation’. Bregman believes the opposite to be true: ‘It’s when crisis hits… that we humans become our best selves.’

He considers the notion that humans are innately good to be a ‘radical idea’ with huge ramifications, because ‘to stand for human goodness is to take a stand against the powers that be’, for whom ‘a hopeful view of human nature is downright threatening.’

Framing the book as a personal journey of discovery, Bregman ranges far and wide to construct and prove his proposition. He engages with thinkers and ideas from archaeology, anthropology, biology, philosophy, psychology, sociology, politics and history. The book’s plentiful references are similarly diverse, and provide a great guide for those interested in going deeper into particular subjects.

There is much here that will interest peace activists, including a discussion of SLA Marshall’s claim that only a minority of US soldiers in combat in the Second World War fired their weapons at the enemy in any given encounter, a passage looking at the ineffective Allied bombing of civilian areas in Germany in the 1940s and an inspiring account of the 1914 Christmas Truce.

Bregman is particularly keen on slaying a number of sacred cows, including two famous social psychology experiments that seemed to prove human beings’ darker nature: Stanley Milgrim’s 1960s work on obedience to authority and Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment.

Fittingly, the book ends by highlighting a number of hopeful initiatives from around the world that assume human beings want to do good, such as Universal Basic Income in Alaska, Norway’s progressive prison system and participatory budgeting in South America.

Bregman is a great storyteller, which makes for a really enjoyable and engaging read. Even though he approvingly quotes Bertrand Russell about not letting wishful thinking get in the way of the truth, the book is very much a polemic, with the nagging feeling of being guided down a particular path using carefully selected evidence and argument.

For example, while the many criticisms of Zimbardo’s work leads to Bregman dismissing the academic’s findings, when it comes to Marshall’s also heavily-criticised research, Bregman is happy to broadly accept his results, which happen to back up his argument.

But even if you aren’t completely persuaded by Bregman’s argument, Humankind is nevertheless a welcome rebalancing of the scales in the age-old ‘human nature’ debate in favour of co-operation, compassion and nonviolence – something that can only help peace activists and the struggle for a better world.

Humankind is published by Bloomsbury, priced £20.

Black Lives Matter: the largest and most effective US social movement in history?

Black Lives Matter: the largest and most effective US social movement in history?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star

13 July 2020

Like many people I’ve followed and been inspired by the extensive news coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. But I really didn’t understand their extraordinary size until I read a recent New York Times analysis.

For the uninitiated the women-founded movement began in 2013 with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media after George Zimmerman was acquitted after he shot and killed 17-year old African-American Trayvon Martin in Florida. Since them BLM has highlighted and opposed the brutality, injustice and unaccountability that black people experience in America, especially from the police and legal system.

BLM activists played a leading role in the demonstrations sparked by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and have led the protests in response to the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on 25 May.

According to the 3 July New York Times analysis the recent demonstrations peaked on 6 June, with half a million people on the streets in nearly 550 locations across the US. Overall, there have been more than 4,700 demonstrations, or an average of 140 per day, since the first protests began in Minneapolis on 26 May.

“Four recent polls… suggest that about 15 million to 26 million people in the United States have participated in demonstrations over the death of George Floyd and others in recent weeks”, the report notes.

After interviewing academics and crowd-counting experts the New York Times states “These figures would make the recent protests the largest movement in the country’s history” – bigger than the civil rights marches of the 1960s and the Women’s March of 2017.

“Really, it’s hard to overstate the scale of this movement”, Deva Woodly, an associate professor of politics at the New School, comments.

Once one comprehends the immense size of the protests, their wide-ranging and deep impacts are less surprising.

Across the US cities and police forces have responded by instituting a series of reforms – highlighting how BLM has mainstreamed the concept of ‘defund the police’. In New York City Mayor Bill de Blaiso has pledged to reallocate police funding. “We’re committed to seeing a shift of funding to youth services, to social services, that will happen literally in the course of the next three weeks, but I’m not going to go into detail because it is subject to negotiation, and we want to figure out what makes sense,” de Blasio said, according to the New York Times. Similarly, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced he would be redirecting $250 million from the police budget into health care, jobs and “healing” programmes for the city’s communities of colour, the Los Angeles Times reported in June.

The state of Iowa, Dallas and Denver have banned the use of chokeholds, with the Mile-High City introducing a new policy meaning police officers will have “to alert supervisors any time they point a gun at someone”, according to the Denver Post.

Speaking to the BBC Today Programme on 29 June, Melina Abdullah, Professor of Pan-African Studies at Cal State LA and BLM activist, noted “The number of killings at the hands of police has remained relatively stable” in the US. “However… in cities with strong Black Lives Matter chapters the numbers have dropped dramatically”.

On the national political stage, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has pledged to establish a police oversight board within his first 100 days in office and address institutional racism. And globally, BLM in the US has inspired protests in many countries, including the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, Brazil, Japan, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa.

Crucial though these changes are, perhaps the most exciting and important influence of BLM is the impact it has had on American public opinion.

“In my 35 years of polling, I’ve never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply. We are a different country today than just 30 days ago”, Republican pollster Frank Luntz tweeted on 8 June.

He was referring to a 2 June Monmouth poll that showed 57 percent of Americans agreed that police are more likely to use excessive force against African Americans, compared to 33 percent when asked the same question after the killing of Eric Garner by New York City police in 2014. In the same survey 76 per cent of Americans, including 71 per cent of white people, said racism and discrimination was “a big problem” in the United States – a 26 percentage-point increase since 2015.

The New York Times notes “Public opinion on race and criminal justice issues has been steadily moving left since the first [BLM-led] protests ignited over the fatal shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.” However, according to the New York Times data from online survey firm Civiqs shows that since the death of Floyd support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years: a majority of Americans support the movement by a 25-point margin, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began.

As the Monmouth poll above highlights, there has been a significant shift in opinion amongst white Americans. This includes views of the police, with the percentage of white Americans who have a very favourable or somewhat favourable impression of police officers dropping from 72% to 61% within a week, according to a survey in early June organised by the Democracy Fund, UCLA and USA Today newspaper. White people have been a significant part of the recent BLM protests. Explaining that a recent BLM protest in her predominantly black Brooklyn neighbourhood was attended by mostly white people, African-American novelist Brit Bennett told BBC’s Start The Week programme last month that this “mainstream white support” gives her hope for the future of the movement.

The protests are continuing, though with much less media attention. And while they remain popular, the New York Times notes “events could move public opinion the other way”, suggesting “a sense that protests were getting out of control, with looting and violence, could… harm the public image of the movement.”

Polling suggests this is a danger, with a 2 June Reuters/Ipsos poll finding 73 per cent of respondents support “peaceful protest and demonstrations,” but only 22% back violent protests, with 79% believing looting and vandalism “undermine the original protest’s case for justice.”

Let’s hope BLM continues to thrive and force the change that is so desperately needed in the US and beyond.

As Professor Douglas McAdam, an Emeritus Professor at Stanford University who studies social movements, commented in the New York Times: “It looks… like these protests are achieving what very few do: setting in motion a period of significant, sustained, and widespread social, political change. We appear to be experiencing a social change tipping point — that is as rare in society as it is potentially consequential.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

How nonviolence reduces government-led mass killings: interview with Evan Perkoski

How nonviolence reduces government-led mass killings: interview with Evan Perkoski
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
6 April 2020

Ignored by the mainstream media, in 2018 Dr Evan Perkoski, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Connecticut, and Erica Chenoweth, a Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, published a very important study titled Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings.

With commentator Gary Younge heralding the 2010s as the decade of protest, and huge demonstrations continuing in places such as India, Chile and Iraq, Ian Sinclair questioned Perkoski about his co-authored report.

Ian Sinclair: Your report is informed by the seminal 2011 Columbia University Press study Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by your co-author Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. For those unfamiliar with the idea of nonviolent resistance, can you summarise the key findings of Chenoweth and Stephan’s book?

Evan Perkoski: Chenoweth and Stephan produced a ground-breaking book in 2011 that was the first to systematically compare the efficacy of violent and nonviolent resistance methods. In other words, it statistically evaluates how likely popular uprisings are to succeed – to remove a dictator from power or to gain territorial independence, for example – when using either violent or nonviolent strategies. They find that nonviolent strategies are nearly twice as effective. As to why, there are many possible reasons. Nonviolent uprisings tend to be bigger and more diverse since lots of people can participate; they are difficult to suppress owing to their size, but also because militaries might not follow orders to crack down on protesters;  and they are often seen as more legitimate by international audience. As a result, these uprisings can very effectively disrupt civic affairs and apply pressure to governments. Yet, Chenoweth and Stephan also find that nonviolent movements have to grow quite large if they are to succeed. Specifically, if 3.5 percent of a state’s population actively participates at a campaign’s peak, then success is almost inevitable. But that’s a lot of people: in the US, for example, that would require over ten million individuals to turn out.

IS: What does your report tell us about nonviolent and violent resistance and the incidence of mass killings during popular uprisings?

EP: We find that mass killings tend to occur less frequently when dissidents use strategies of civil resistance and nonviolence compared to violence. Specifically, nearly half as many cases of nonviolent resistance experience mass violence as do cases of violent resistance. There are a few reasons why. Nonviolence might seem less threatening to regime elites and their families, giving them a way out without using force. Nonviolent movements also probably make it easier for members of the regime, including soldiers, to defect to the opposition, which they might hesitate to do when the opposition is a violent insurgency. And nonviolent movements don’t give the regime any cover for resorting to violence. In other words, they make it hard for states to justify a crackdown to their domestic and international allies.

IS: What are the other key factors which influence the chances of government forces carrying out mass killings in response to an uprising?

EP: Overall, we find that the interaction between dissidents and states matters greatly when it comes to the onset of mass violence. For instance, while strategies of nonviolent resistance seem to be safer, so are movements that can elicit defections from members of the armed forces. We also find that those resistance movements seeking to overthrow the incumbent regime are at a greater risk of violence. Which makes sense: leaders in such cases have the most to lose – compared to a secessionist campaign, for instance.

But we also find that outside actors can have a big effect. One of our most consistent findings is that highly internationalised conflicts, where foreign states are supporting dissidents as well as the regime they’re fighting against, are particularly dangerous.

But it’s not only the dynamics of the uprising that affect whether mass violence happens, either. Certain types of states are especially likely to kill their own civilians, and this includes non-democracies, military-based regimes (where the military controls the state), and those that are generally less developed.

IS: Can you give a real world example of this playing out in a recent struggle?

EP: One of the cases where we’ve seen some of these dynamics play out in a terrible way is Syria. In some ways it fits with our findings, and in other ways it doesn’t. In terms of it fitting, this is a highly internationalised conflict with foreign states supporting both dissidents and the regime in very overt ways. Syrian dissidents are also seeking to overthrow the Assad regime, which might explain why Assad is willing to use lethal force – specifically, to stay in power. Dissidents and the regime are also engaging in direct battles against one another which can help explain the high level of civilian victimization. Of course, dissidents initially began protesting the regime with nonviolent means and only escalated after the regime began its campaign of brutal repression. This shows how it is important to remember that cross-national statistical findings will not always explain every case perfectly, and they are instead most useful for identifying broader patterns that will generally – but not always – hold true across contexts.

IS: If resistance campaigns who receive external support are more likely to experience mass killings by government forces, are there any practical steps concerned citizens and organisations in the US and UK can take if they want to assist resistance campaigns in other countries?

EP: In our research we focus on a very specific type of foreign support: namely, overt material assistance. While we find that this particular type of engagement can make violence more likely, this does not necessarily mean that all forms of engagement should be avoided. States and other interested groups might therefore avoid sending money and arms, and instead provide training materials, to help develop organizational capacity, support dissidents through acts of diplomacy, and to use their leverage to isolate and sanction any regimes that resort to violence. Doing so would also send a powerful signal to other states that such behaviour won’t be tolerated.

Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings is published by the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, and can be downloaded for free from https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/nonviolent-resistance-and-prevention-of-mass-killings/.

Book review: Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings by Evan Perkoski and Erica Chenoweth

Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings by Evan Perkoski and Erica Chenoweth
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
April-May 2020

Influenced by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s seminal 2011 study Why Civil Resistance Works, this short report looks at the circumstances surrounding mass killings – the intentional killing of 1,000 or more civilians in a continuous event – by government forces during popular uprisings.

‘The strategic interaction between dissidents and regimes is central to the occurrence of mass violence’, argue Evan Perkoski, an Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut, and Chenoweth, a Professor at the University of Denver. In addition, they note the ‘characteristics… of campaigns play a significant role in explaining the likelihood of mass atrocities.’

Using a data set of 308 resistance campaigns between 1950 and 2013, and illustrating their findings with a number of case studies, they conclude ‘nonviolent uprising are almost three times less likely than violent rebellions to encounter mass killings, all else being equal.’ They put this down to a number of campaign-level factors: nonviolent resistance is less threatening to the physical well-being of regime elites, thus lowering the chances of violent retaliation; government crackdowns on nonviolent protestors often produce defections amongst the armed forces; and ‘the likelihood of mass killings is greater when foreign state provide material aid to dissidents’, something violent insurgencies tend to rely on.

There are, of course, structural factors which influence the likelihood of government violence – regime type and whether mass killings have occurred in the past, to name two – though the authors note these are ‘slow-moving’ and therefore provide ‘little actionable information’ for activists.

This ‘counterintuitive paradox’ – that those campaigns which remain nonviolent and unarmed with no significant foreign support are safest from mass killings – has huge implications, both for those participating in popular uprisings and for peace and anti-war activists in the UK. For example, the research suggests those who have supported sending arms to the Syrian opposition forces, including activists who would identify as being on the progressive left, are pushing for a course of action that increases the chances of the mass killing of civilians.

The report helpfully ends with several practical steps interested external parties could take when considering how to support popular uprisings. These include trying to steer protests “toward strategies, actions and dynamics that are associated with a lower odds of mass violence”, and sharing knowledge and skills rather than providing direct financial or material assistance. External forces can also undermine the cohesion of the repressing government forces by offering exile to leaders or supporting defections – a course of action more appropriate for powerful governments rather than grassroots activists.

Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings was published by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in May 2018.

Rosa Parks: The Real Story

Rosa Parks: The Real Story
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 February 2020

In December an exhibition about the life of Rosa Parks opened at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The same month a new statue honouring the civil rights icon was unveiled in Alabama’s state capital, Montgomery.

Taught in schools in the US and UK, mythologised on the left and celebrated across popular culture, from Outkast’s 1998 hip hop single Rosa Parks to the 2018 Doctor Who episode titled Rosa, her story will be very familiar to Morning Star readers.

But do we really know Parks’s story?

Here is US news organisation CNN’s crude take on 1 December 2018: “It was on this day in 1955 when a simple act of defiance elevated a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, into a pivotal symbol in America’s civil rights movement. Parks refused to move to the back of a city bus. Little did the 42-year old know that her act would help end segregation laws in the South.”

This popular understanding of Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott she triggered is only “half true”, Noam Chomsky argues in the 2002 book Understanding Power. “What’s in history is one person had the courage to do something – which she did”. But, the US dissident notes, “nobody does anything on their own. Rosa Parks came out of an organised community of committed people.”

Indeed, if you read up on the boycott you find “a network of intrepid organizers, situated in overlapping black institutions” in early 50s Montgomery, as Stewart Burns explains in his 1997 book Daybreak Of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott.

These included the Women’s Political Council (led by English professor Jo Ann Robinson), the Citizen’s Coordinating Committee and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A key figure was E. D. Nixon, the head of the Alabama region of the African American labour organisation the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He had also been the president of Montgomery’s NAACP branch from 1946-50.

Parks herself was not just a seamstress, but “a civil rights activist of long standing”, according to Burns. She was the secretary of the Montgomery and Alabama chapter of the NAACP. In 1944 the NAACP had sent Parks to Abbeville, Alabama to investigate the gang rape of 24-year-old African American woman Recy Taylor. And a few months before she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, Parks had attended a school desegregation workshop at the influential Highlander folk school in Tennessee.

Though Parks had not planned her famous act of resistance on 1 December, some of the local black leaders were primed for action. “We had planned the boycott long before Mrs. Parks was arrested”, Robinson admitted later, according to David Garrow’s 1986 Bearing The Cross, his majestic history of Martin Luther King, Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Garrow notes Robinson had written to the mayor of Montgomery in May 1954, explaining that three quarters of the riders on the city buses were black and threatening a boycott.

Like many of the leaders and organisers in the wider civil rights movement that transformed the American South over the next decade, the activists in Montgomery were incredibly smart strategists and tacticians. This is well highlighted by the fact another member of the black community had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus nine months before Parks – 15-year old Claudette Colvin.

This arrest “galvanised Montgomery’s African American community”, Burns notes. Robinson and Nixon thought they might have an ideal test case to challenge segregation. However, problems soon developed. First, Colvin’s had resisted arrest, resulting in her being charged with assault and battery. Second, and likely more important, Robinson and Nixon learned that the young, unmarried Colvin was several months pregnant.

“Both leaders concluded that Colvin would be neither an ideal candidate for symbolizing the abuse heaped upon black passengers nor a good litigant for a test suit certain to generate great pressures and publicity”, Garrow explains. “The black leadership chose not to pursue the case.”

In contrast, Robinson noted “Mrs Parks had the calibre of character we needed to get the city to rally behind us.”

And rally they did. With Parks arrested on a Thursday, Robinson organised the printing of a reported 40,000 leaflets calling for a one-day bus boycott on the following Monday. Aware they needed the help of the black church leaders, Nixon called a 26-year old minister who had arrived in the city just over a year before – Martin Luther King, Jr. “Hesitating at first, King offered his support”, Burns notes. At a mass meeting that evening it was agreed to continue the boycott, with King heading the coordinating organisation, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). It seems King was chosen, in part, because he was new to Montgomery. “He had not been here long enough for the city fathers to put their hand on him”, Dixon relates in the 1987 PBS documentary series Eyes On The Prize.

The boycott “mobilised the entire black population” of Montgomery, Adam Fairclough notes in his 2001 history Better Day Coming: Black and Equality, 1890-2000. “50,000 men, women and children walked to work, gave each other lifts, and even on the coldest, wettest days refused to ride the buses.”

A complex car pool system was put in place by the MIA, with hundreds of volunteers driving private cars to move people around the city, complete with ad hoc pick-up stations and taxi-style dispatchers coordinating the operation.

In parallel with the street mobilisation a legal challenge was also mounted, with local black attorney Fred Gray – representing the MIA and supported by the NAACP – filing a federal lawsuit in February 1956 against segregation on Montgomery’s buses.

Despite strong opposition from city officials the boycott continued, with participants and the movement leadership enduring intimidation, threats, police harassment, legal challenges, trials, prison time and even the bombing of King’s and Nixon’s homes.

Finally, after a series of rulings and appeals, the Supreme Court affirmed its support of integration on Montgomery buses in November 1956. The boycott came to end on 20 December 1956 – an incredible 381 days after it started. Keen to make the transformation as trouble-free as possible the MIA provided advice to black people riding on the newly integrated buses: “be quiet and friendly, proud but not arrogant” and “do not deliberately sit by a white person, unless there is no other seat.”

Placing the boycott in historical context, Burns argues it was “a formative turning point of the twentieth century”.

“Harbinger of the African American freedom movement… springboard for the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr” and the “launching pad for the worldwide era of upheaval known as ‘the sixties’”.

The boycott also provides a number of valuable lessons for those working for progressive change today. First, it shows mass nonviolent direct action – combined with a successful legal challenge, in this instance – can be very effective against established power.

Second, it illuminates the nature of the relationship between leaders and the wider movement. “Martin Luther King was an important person, but I do not think that he was a big agent of change”, Chomsky argues. “In fact, I think Martin Luther King was able to play a role in bringing about change only because the real agents of change were doing a lot of the work.”

Robinson concurs, telling a reporter at the time: “The amazing thing about our movement is that it is a protest of the people. It is not a one man show. It is not the preacher’s show… the leaders couldn’t stop it if they wanted to.”

So, yes, we should celebrate Parks. And the role played by King. But we shouldn’t settle for this simple story. We also need to remember the deep organisational roots of the movement and the crucial role played by what Burns calls “ordinary people acting in extraordinary ways” – people like Robinson, Nixon, Colvin, Gray, and, most importantly, the 50,000 strong black community of Montgomery.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review: Quaker Quicks – Why I Am A Pacifist by Tim Gee

Book review: Quaker Quicks – Why I Am A Pacifist by Tim Gee
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
14 August 2019

Formed soon after the English Civil War, the Quakers – AKA the Religious Society of Friends – are perhaps best known for their commitment to working for peace.

Over a quick and very readable 60 pages Quaker and activist Tim Gee explores this tradition through the concept of pacifism.

Popularly understood as a passive “refusal to engage in violence”, Gee expands on this, noting it can more accurately be understood as an active, not passive, process, such as non-violently resisting oppression or challenging the ideological systems which underpin violence.

As these examples suggest, pacifism isn’t necessarily about avoiding conflict – conflict in many forms is, after all, arguably a driver of human progress, he contends – but making sure conflict is managed “in a way that respects human life.”

While violent action and resistance tend to be prized and elevated in our culture, Gee highlights Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s paradigm-shifting 2012 study Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. Analysing 323 examples of resistance campaigns and rebellion from 1900 to 2006, they conclude nonviolent campaigns have been twice as successful as violent campaigns in achieving their objectives. Moreover, they note nonviolent resistance campaigns are more likely to lead to democratic forms of government than violent campaigns.

The huge impact of the Extinction Rebellion protests in the UK on public consciousness and Westminster politics is further evidence of the power of nonviolence. “These protesters are quite unique because [they] are by and large peaceful,” Laurence Taylor, the deputy assistant commissioner in charge of protest policing for the Metropolitan force, recently admitted. “It is almost easier to deal with people who are being violent towards you, because you can use a level of force commensurate with that.”

Gee is particularly good at highlighting the intersectionality of pacifism – with brief chapters on its relation to race, “the violence of economic policy”, climate change and gender. “The crisis of violence needs to be understood as at least in part a crisis caused by the prevalence of patriarchy and the problems of toxic masculinity”, he notes.

With its useful set of references and a refreshing lightness and clarity to the prose, Gee’s book is a brilliant primer for anyone interested in pacifism and nonviolence. For those wishing to explore the topic further I would strongly recommend Gee’s inspiring 2011 book Counterpower: Making Change Happen.

Quaker Quicks – Why I Am A Pacifist is published by Christian Alternative Books, priced £6.99.

Hitler’s Compromises: Nathan Stoltzfus interview

Hitler’s Compromises: Nathan Stoltzfus interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
14 June 2019

The popular perception of Adolf Hitler is of an all-powerful leader, the most evil individual in modern history, using extreme barbarity to crush his opponents at home and abroad.

In 2016’s Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany Nathan Stoltzfus, professor of Holocaust Studies at Florida State University in the United States, challenges this simplistic representation, raises important questions about our understanding of the Nazis in power, while providing a hopeful analysis about the possibility of non-violent resistance in highly repressive societies.

Ian Sinclair: What is the central thesis of your book?

Nathan Stoltzfus: Hitler’s Compromises makes an argument about the nature of the Nazi state.   I do not question Hitler’s reputation as the most evil person, only the common image of him as a madman, carpet-biter foaming at the mouth. Hitler was able to achieve such monumental evil only because he used a range of tactics. While his dictatorship murdered millions in the name of ideology, Hitler managed his “German-blooded race” with persuasion, enticement, cooptation, compromise – tactics scholars now associate with ‘soft’ dictators of the twenty-first century. Hitler aimed to shape the “German-blooded” people into Nazis – fellow perpetrators and ruthless enslavers and murderers of “racial” and war enemies, the “incurables” and outsiders. “We must be honest, decent, loyal and comradely to those of our own blood and to no one else,” Heinrich Himmler told his SS. “Whether other peoples live well or whether they die from hunger is important to me only in so far as we need them as slaves for our culture.” Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels said, “We do not subscribe to the view that one should feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty or clothe the naked… We must have a healthy people in order to prevail in the world.”

In Hitler’s cold, cost-benefit calculations, Germans could not be refashioned as Nazis by terror alone. Stemming political opposition with terror, Hitler then led by incentives – the familiar ones of material well-being and future prosperity, national prowess and domestic security. As the foundation of his 1000-year Reich that would pass on Nazism as a way of life, Hitler sought to refashion popular attitudes and social patterns. To build a total society to buttress a total state, Hitler had to annihilate some Christian norms. He aimed to change their hearts and minds rather than to merely control their outward behaviour by police force.

Hitler led a dance with his own people, pausing and even backtracking if the people stumbled or hesitated, so that they remained united about his authority over them. Hitler was willing to move laterally so that he could resume moving toward his goals while sidestepping frontal attacks.

These compromises worked in tandem with Nazi terror. Hitler did not compromise his ideology but he remained willing to compromise with his people, particularly when popular obstinacy was based in traditional habits and customs, up until late in the war when he became convinced that popular backing would not win the war.

Hitler’s compromises began with his decision to seek power the ‘legal way’. They continued in power with a recognition that he must win the people away from their non-Nazi traditions and into unquestioning obedience by awing them with his great feats, which all previous German leaders had failed to deliver. A key benefit for Hitler of his willingness to compromise was in maintaining the notion, widespread across Germany regardless of denomination, region, or class, that Hitler always made things right, as soon as he learned about injustices. Across Germany people maintained their belief that “if only Hitler knew” all would be well, blaming what they did not like on officials they thought were working against Hitler.

IS: Your analysis seems to contradict the traditional understanding of how Nazi Germany functioned?

NS: According to the earliest perspectives, the Nazi state ruled Germans of the Reich by terror; Germans were forced to cooperate against their will as the Gestapo crushed every sign of dissent from Germans. These interpretations, which still hold sway today, coincide with one-dimensional images equating monstrous evil with uncontrolled fits of rage and brutality. Scholars have come to acknowledge the role of popular support – when it buttressed Nazi terror tactics. Germans joined the party, denounced outsiders, stole Jewish property. These mainstream perspectives, however, have shied away from acknowledging the corollary popular influences on Hitler of mass popular noncompliance and public protest. Standard interpretations screen this out; they challenge entrenched common wisdom that resistance by ordinary persons was always futile (even the resistance of mighty military men failed). While support for Hitler can be written off as a response to terror, any indication that the regime was sensitive to collective, popular opposition in public raises questions about public responsibility for Hitler’s crimes. Also according to common beliefs, Jewish assimilation or integration did not aid Jewish survival. But history shows that 98 percent of the German Jews who survived without going into hiding or being sent to the camps, survived because they were married to non-Jews.

Hitler also did not rule by charisma alone but as a politician and strategist. Many wish to portray Hitler as monster rather than mortal. Demonization is comforting, suggesting that neither we do not share anything with Hitler and will not face a similar threat. Flat moral condemnations are easy and popular but do not sufficiently disclose the complexity of Hitler’s evil; he was able to do so much evil precisely because he knew how to manage and manipulate, throwing fits of rage for effect.

The grassroots perspectives on the influence of masses that grew in the decades following the war was illustrated by the bottom up approach of historians examining East German communism after 1989. It’s very possible that the established history of Nazi Germany would be different today had scholars and others approached it with the help of bottom up perspectives emerging during the 1970s and 80s. Many views on popular autocracy in our own era not only apply to Hitler’s rule but were defined by fascism – which recognized that the masses could no longer be left out by claiming to rule on their behalf.

IS: Can you give a couple of examples when the Nazi government compromised in the face of nonviolent resistance to its policies? 

NS: Hitler’s effort to centralize control over the Protestant Church foundered in 1934 – within months of the gory Night of the Long Knives purge. Two bishops (out of 28) mobilized their congregations in peaceful protests, resulting in strife among Nazi regional leaders and the house arrest of the two bishops, causing churchgoers to rise up in protests more fervently than ever. To stem this unrest and its danger of slowing his momentum, Hitler restored the arrested bishops to their dioceses, sidelining his plans. To stem Christian influence, some Nazi leaders replaced crucifixes in Catholic schools with pictures of Hitler. This sparked nonviolent Catholic revolts, leading in more than one case to restoration of the crucifixes. Mass unrest and public protest by a Catholic bishop also caused Hitler to halt and then radically alter the way he carried out “euthanasia” of the “incurables” and “useless mouths.”

The defining example of defiance by street protest and Nazi compromise is the Rosenstrasse Protest by non-Jewish women that persuaded Hitler to release rather than deport their Jewish husbands in early 1943. Many Germans compromised step by step, accepting or perpetrating Nazi crimes, but the personal lives of intermarried persons forced them into a series of increasingly demanding steps of defiance, beginning with Hitler’s first days in power and culminating in a street protest that thwarted Goebbels resolve to declare Germany free of Jews in March 1943. Again Hitler relented, releasing some 2,000 intermarried Jews from the deportations.

Cases of social dissent and mass noncompliance so visible the regime could not ignore them were common enough that by November 1943 Goebbels wrote in his diary that the people were already sure that they could use public protest to assert their will on the streets: “The people know exactly where to find the leadership’s soft spot and will always exploit it.”

Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany is published by Yale University Press.

The Awesome Power of Non-violent Action

The Awesome Power of Non-violent Action
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 June 2019

Speaking on the Arab Tyrant Manual podcast recently, Jamila Raqib discussed the widespread ignorance that surrounds non-violent struggle.

“It’s not very well known. We don’t really highlight the history. We think that progress and human rights are won through violence. We think that it [violence] is the most powerful thing you can do,” she explained.

Raqib is as well-placed as anyone to speak about non-violence. Since 2002 she has worked at the Albert Einstein Institution (AEI), set up in 1983 “to advance the study and use of strategic non-violent action in conflicts throughout the world,” according to its mission statement.

Moreover, she worked closely with the legendary Dr Gene Sharp — often called “the Clausewitz of non-violent warfare” — until he passed away last year.

“There is thousands of years of rich history that I don’t think people are very aware of,” Raqib, the AEI’s executive director, says about non-violence.

“We are not aware of our own societies that have used these means, and we are not aware of how they have been used globally.”

Part of the problem is that the mainstream media rarely frames examples of strategic non-violent struggle and activism for what it is. However, successful non-violent action is happening all the time: you just need to read the news with this in mind.

For example, before April 2018 the Guardian reported that “the ruling Republican party’s stranglehold” on Armenia’s political system “appeared intact.”

Presumably confident any public response could be contained, the president of the former Soviet republic, Serzh Sargsyan, moved to install himself as prime minister after term limits had forced him to step down from the presidency.

This move proved especially controversial because “the constitution was amended to give more power to the prime minister and transform the presidency into a ceremonial role,” the Guardian explained.

A non-violent movement quickly grew in response, with thousands of people protesting for days in the capital Yerevan, blocking streets and staging sit-ins.

The leader of the opposition, Nikol Pashinyan, was imprisoned, but the demonstrations continued. With groups of soldiers joining the opposition in the streets, Pashinyan was released.

Sargsyan resigned on April 23 2018. “Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was wrong,” Sargsyan announced. “The street movement is against my tenure. I am fulfilling your demands.”

On May 8 2018 Pashinyan became prime minister. “We took down a powerful man with no help from outside, with no violence,” a pensioner in Armenia told the Guardian.

Earlier this year a similar set of events took place in Algeria. In February the autocratic president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, announced he would seek a fifth term in office after two decades in power.

Again a protest movement grew in response, with peaceful mass demonstrations occurring every Friday, centred on the capital, Algiers.

“In the face of fully armoured riot police, Algeria’s young and old have been seen distributing flowers to security forces during the marches, chanting passionately ‘Pacifism, Pacifism’,” noted Ahmed Mitiche, a graduate student in the Centre for Middle Eastern & North African studies programme at the University of Michigan in The New Arab last month.

As in Armenia, the impact of this civil resistance has been huge. On March 11 Bouteflika announced he wouldn’t seek re-election.

The protests continued, and on April 2 Bouteflika was forced to step down, with Abdelkader Bensalah, the head of the upper house of parliament, installed as interim president.

“By keeping protests peaceful, and forcing the army to support them — it was an intervention by the army chief of staff, Gen Ahmed Gaid Salah, that finally persuaded Bouteflika to go — Algeria’s reformists have already achieved more than most of their predecessors in the 2011-12 Arab spring revolts,” the Guardian’s foreign affairs commentator Simon Tisdall noted.

In Sudan, people have been taking to the streets since December 2018. “The trigger of the revolt was the increase in bread prices after the state cut subsidies at the behest of the IMF,” Gilbert Achcar, professor of development studies and international relations at Soas, recently explained in an interview with Jacobin magazine.

These grievances soon evolved into demonstrations against the 30-year rule of authoritarian president Omar al-Bashir.

In an attempt to quell the protests, Bashir declared a state of emergency in February. This gave security services “expanded powers to search buildings, restrict movement of people and public transport, arrest suspects and seize assets or property during investigations,” Reuters reported in March.

Bashir also “announced a raft of other measures, including setting up emergency courts and prosecutors across the country. Activists say more than 800 people have been tried in the courts.”

Despite the crackdown, the non-violent protests continued, with Bouteflika’s resignation in Algeria in early April seeming to energise the Sudanese opposition.

Days-long sit-ins and protest camps attended by tens of thousands of people were held outside Bashir’s official residence and military headquarters in the capital Khartoum.

News reports noted that when forces loyal to the president fired live rounds at the protest camps, soldiers protected the protesters — giving them shelter, firing shots in the air and blocking the approaches to their protest camps.

On April 11 Bashir was placed under house arrest, replaced by the defence minister Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf as transitional leader. However, “the protesters rejected Ibn Auf’s leadership because he was the head of military intelligence during the brutal campaign to suppress the Darfur insurgency in the 2000s,” The Guardian reported. On April 13 Ibn Auf was forced to resign, as was Salah Gosh, head of the unpopular National Intelligence and Security Service.

Today, the pro-democracy movements in Sudan and Algeria are in an ongoing power struggle with the military. Though the future of both nations remains uncertain, the power of non-violent struggle is clear.

Protesting violently is “foolish,” Sharp told me, when I interviewed him in 2012. Why? “If your enemy has massive capacity for violence — and modern governments today have massive capacity for violence — why deliberately choose to fight with your enemy’s best weapons?”

Though they weren’t on the same mass scale as the demonstrations in Armenia, Algeria and Sudan, the recent Extinction Rebellion protests in London have nevertheless had a huge impact on British politics.

Explicitly non-violent — Roger Hallam, a lead strategist, has repeatedly cited as influences the US civil rights movement and Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen’s seminal book Why Civil Resistance Works — the group’s occupation of several locations in central London wrongfooted the authorities.

In particular the willingness of so many activists to seek arrest meant “the police are genuinely confused,” as Labour Party environmental adviser Alan Simpson explained in the Morning Star.

The Guardian confirmed this uncertainty, noting “anecdotal evidence from those on the ground suggests police are approaching the protests with a light touch.”

The report went on to highlight the College of Policing’s guidelines on public-order policing, which advises “commanders need to set the policing style and tone at the start of an operation and be aware of the potential impact on public perceptions.”

Along with David Attenborough’s BBC documentary Climate Change — The Facts and the ongoing school strikes, Extinction Rebellion has significantly shifted the debate about climate change in Britain.

Within days of the protests, Extinction Rebellion activists held meetings with Tory Environment Secretary Michael Gove, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell.

“They are a massive and necessary wake-up call. Today we have the opportunity to say: ‘We hear you’,” Corbyn said about the Extinction Rebellion protests as he introduced a motion asking Parliament to declare a “climate emergency.”

Labour’s motion won a historic victory — on May 2 2019 the British Parliament became the first parliament in the world to declare a climate emergency.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s government has ditched its planned cuts to aviation tax and is reportedly considering withdrawing its support for a third runway at Heathrow.

The climate-change bug has even reached the Tory Party, with the Guardian reporting: “The 60-strong One Nation group of senior Tories” is “urging contenders for their party’s leadership to put the battle against the climate emergency at the forefront of the contest.”

“If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon,” Attenborough warned recently.

With the climate emergency creating such high stakes for humanity, it is more important than ever that people understand the immense power of strategic non-violent struggle and activism.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

 

Book review. Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany by Nathan Stoltzfus

Book review. Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany by Nathan Stoltzfus
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June0July 2019

Think of Adolf Hitler and invariably an image is conjured up of an all-powerful leader, the most evil individual in modern history, using extreme barbarity to crush his opponents at home and abroad.

The latest study from Nathan Stoltzfus, professor of Holocaust Studies at Florida State University in the US, challenges this simplistic representation, raising profound questions for historians, citizens and activists alike.

Citing a huge range of German- and English-language sources – there are nearly 100 pages of references – he argues that, contrary to popular understanding, Hitler and the Nazi party elite showed a ‘willingness to compromise with the German people when the political stakes were high enough.’

This accommodation took a variety of forms ‘ranging from his delaying a policy until the people were ready to accept it to redirecting a course already taken in response to popular dissent, to simply not punishing those who publicly opposed a regime policy.’

A series of case studies make up the core of the book, including chapters on Hitler’s push to achieve power legally through the electoral system (with all the political compromises, incentivising and persuasion that come with this), and on the Nazi party’s struggle to subdue and overcome oppositional forces within the Protestant and Catholic churches.

Stoltzfus describes how the Nazi’s policy of (involuntary) euthanasia – established in secret in 1939 to minimise public concern – was significantly curtailed in 1941 after a public outcry led by Clemens August von Galen, the Catholic bishop of Munster.

Along with this important U-turn, two street protests stand out.

In 1943, in the city of Witten, around 300 women successfully demonstrated against the local Nazi chief who had manipulated the women’s food rations to force them to relocate to the countryside.

In the same year, hundreds of non-Jewish women protested in Rosenstrasse after their Jewish husbands had been rounded up in Berlin, their likely final destination a death camp. In reaction to the days-long demonstration most of the men were released, the defiant women saving ‘some two thousand German Jews from death in the Holocaust’, according to Stoltzfus.

Though it deals with some of the darkest events of the twentieth century, Hitler’s Compromises is ultimately a hopeful book, highlighting how there is political space for dissent, however limited, in even the harshest of dictatorships.

Moreover, for peace activists, Stoltzfus provides compelling evidence that nonviolent action was successful in forcing the government’s hand on a variety of issues in Nazi Germany, important victories that deserve to be better known – and remembered in any discussions about the effectiveness of nonviolent activism.

How three courageous individuals saved humanity

How three courageous individuals saved humanity
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 December 2018

What difference can one person make when it comes to influencing global politics?

Very little, you might think. However, a careful reading of several crisis points in modern history throws up inspiring examples of individuals acting courageously under intense pressure to save humanity from itself.

One such person is Vasili Arkipov, a Soviet naval officer during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, whose story activist Milan Rai rivetingly tells in a 2014 article for Telesur (and which the account that follows is based on). With the US and Soviet Union on the brink of nuclear war, on 27 October a US taskforce of surface ships and aircraft was harassing, in international waters, a Soviet submarine, B-59, on which Arkipov was second in command. In an attempt to force the submarine to the surface and drive it away from Cuba, the US ships conducted extreme sonar sound attacks on the B-59, and dropped five practice depth charges. The number is important. A few days earlier the US had sent a document to the Soviet forces explaining their signalling system for a ship to surface was five practice depth charges. The commanders on B-59, who were used to three warning practice depth charges as the signal to surface, never received this information.

With the submarine crew enduring temperatures of around 45oC and dangerous levels of CO2, the captain of B-59, Valentin Grigorievitch, concluded that a war between the US and the Soviet Union had started and ordered the firing of a nuclear torpedo at the US taskfore. The firing of the “special weapon” required the consent of the captain, the Political Officer and the second in command, Arkipov. The Political Officer consented. Arkipov refused to give his consent. “He halted the firing of a nuclear weapon that would almost certainly have triggered US retaliation against Cuba and the Soviet Union that would have led to a devastating global nuclear war”, Rai notes.

Fast forward to 1983 and another Soviet commander single-handedly stopped another catastrophic nuclear exchange between the US and Soviet Union.

It was a time of high tensions in the Cold War. US president Ronald Reagan had recently called the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire”, and was modernising the US’s nuclear weapons, with medium-range missiles about to be moved into Western Europe.

A Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet air defence forces, on 26 September Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer at Serpukhov-15, a secret command centre near Moscow that monitored the Soviet Union’s early warning satellites orbiting over the US.

“Early in the morning alarms went off and computers sent signals that a US Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile had been launched from an American base”, the Guardian noted in its obituary of Petrov, who died last year, aged 77. “A few seconds later they seemed to detect that four more missiles had been launched.”

Petrov’s job was to tell his superior officers, who would report to the Soviet military’s general staff, who would then consult the Soviet leader at the time, Yuri Andropov, about launching a counterattack. “Petrov’s computer systems said the reliability of the satellites’ information was at the ‘highest’ level’”, explained the Guardian. “Only 25 minutes would pass between the missiles’ launch and their detonation.”

Luckily, Petrov decided to report the alert as a system malfunction. “I had a funny feeling in my gut,” he explained to the Washington Post. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.” He was right. The alarm was apparently caused by a Soviet satellite mistaking the sun’s reflection off the tops of high-altitude clouds for a US missile launch.

More recently, an American intelligence analyst played a key role in stopping US military action against Iran, supposedly because of Iran’s nuclear weapons capability.

In October 2007 US President George Bush had given a press conference with hostilities rising between the US and Iran. “I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War Three it seem like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon”, he said. Discussing this period of US-Iranian relations in his 2010 memoir Decision Points, Bush noted “military action would always be on the table”. However, the interventionist Bush Administration didn’t contend with the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE).

“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program”, were the report’s first words, which represented the consensus of the 16 US intelligence agencies. The principal author of the report was Thomas Fingar, an intelligence analyst who became Chairman of the National Intelligence Council in 2005, following the intelligence catastrophe of the Iraq War. According to former CIA officer Ray McGovern, Fingar was “a practitioner of the old-time ethos of objective, non-politicized intelligence.”

Bush described the NIE as “an eye-popping declaration” in his book. It “tied my hands on the military side… after the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program”, he wrote.

“Almost single-handedly he [Fingar] has stopped or, at the very least, postponed any US military action against Iran”, the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill noted a few weeks after the NIE was made public.

Comprised of senior people in the military or intelligence services acting in extraordinary situations to prevent mass killing, we should remember and celebrate all three of them. Rai suggests 27 October should be Arkhipov Day, a world holiday, for example.

But what can normal people like you or I do to make the world a better place?

Speaking in the essential 1992 documentary Manufacturing Consent, US dissident Noam Chomsky maintains critical thinking and resistance is extremely difficult on your own: “You can’t fight the world alone. Some people can, but it’s pretty rare.”

“The way to do it is through organisation”, he says. Individuals can maximise their influence and power by joining together with others, providing the opportunity for the pooling of resources and knowledge which may, with lots of work, eventually create the conditions in which elites can be challenged and possibly defeated.

From Extinction Rebellion to political parties such as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and the Green Party and grassroots media outlets like Peace News and Novara Media, there is no shortage of organisations working for substantial change who would welcome any support they can get.

Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter @IanJSinclair.