Why the UK Left is wrong to be so dismissive of non-violent struggle
by Ian Sinclair
20 November 2021
Non-violence is under attack.
Many influential figures on the Left in the UK dismiss, misrepresent or ignore the concept of non-violent struggle, also known as civil resistance. Indeed, two books have recently been published that explicitly criticise non-violence – Andreas Malm’s ‘How To Blow Up A Pipeline’ and ‘In Defense of Looting’ by Vicky Osterweil. In a June 2020 editorial, the revolutionary Leftist magazine Salvage proclaimed: “Salvage glorifies the burning down of the Minneapolis third police precinct [in response to the murder of African-American man George Floyd]”.
Below I respond to some of the myths often repeated on the Left about non-violent struggle.
Myth One: violence is more effective than non-violence in making change
“Columnists did not cut it. Activists could not have done it. Peaceful protest did not do it. Sports boycotts, books, badges and car boot sales did not do it,” wrote Afua Hirsch in The Guardian in April 2018 about the end of apartheid in South Africa. “It took revolutionaries, pure and simple. People willing to break the law, to kill and be killed.”
Yet while there is disagreement about the relative importance of violence and non-violence in the struggle, it is clear that at the very least, non-violent struggle played an important contributory role in the end of apartheid.
Summarising the key events – which included labour strikes, boycotts, demonstrations and civil disobedience, activities involving hundreds of thousands of people – in a 2010 article for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, Lester Kurtz, a professor at George Mason University, wrote: “In the end, a concerted grassroots non-violent civil resistance movement in coalition with international support and sanctions forced the white government to negotiate.” Of course, many highlight the importance of the armed resistance but I’m confident no serious historian or observer would be dismissive of the incredibly brave non-violent resistance to apartheid.
More broadly, to quote the non-violent action guru George Lakey, “the underlying assumption” of a view such as Hirsch’s “is that violence is the most powerful force in the world”. As Lakey noted in 2001: “This is conventional wisdom, shared by most right-wingers, left-wingers, and people in the middle. It’s as popular as the old consensus that the earth is flat. And it is just as incorrect.”
The 2011 book ‘Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict’ by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan provides academic evidence in support of the efficacy of non-violent struggle. The 2012 winner of the American Political Science Association’s Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award, given annually for the best book on government, politics, or international relations, the study was a key inspiration for the founders of Extinction Rebellion, arguably one of the most successful protest movements in recent British history (though writing in Peace News Gabriel Carlyle notes their analysis of the book isn’t quite right).
Analysing 323 examples of resistance campaigns and rebellion from 1900 to 2006, the authors concluded that non-violent campaigns have been twice as successful as violent campaigns in achieving their objectives. They argued this difference is down to non-violent campaigns being more likely to attract mass support. This greater level of participation tends to lead to more tactical innovation, more loyalty shifts among the regime’s supporters, and raises the political, economic and social costs to the regime – all of which increase the chances of success.
Their findings are broadly supported by the research of Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham, assistant professor of political science at the University of Maryland. Using a different data set of violent and non-violent strategies of groups seeking self-determination between 1960 and 2005, she concluded that non-violent resistance “is more effective than violence in obtaining concessions over self-determination”.
A 2020 journal article in the American Political Science Review by Omar Wasow of Princeton University provides further evidence. Evaluating Black-led protests in the US between 1960 and 1972, he found that “non-violent activism, particularly when met with state or vigilante repression, drove media coverage, framing, congressional speech, and public opinion on civil rights. Counties proximate to non-violent protests saw presidential Democratic vote share increase 1.6-2.5%.”
In contrast, “Protester-initiated violence… helped move news agendas, frames, elite discourse, and public concern toward ‘social control’.” He concluded that violent protests likely caused a 1.5-7.9% shift among whites toward Republicans in the 1968 presidential election, tipping the close-run election for Richard Nixon.
Myth Two: non-violent struggle is passive
Hirsch’s framing above implies that ‘peaceful’ activists don’t break the law, aren’t willing to get killed, and aren’t revolutionaries. This ahistorical muddle feeds into another popular myth about non-violent struggle – that it is passive and avoids conflict.
Chenoweth sets out the reality in her new book ‘Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs To Know’: “Civil resistance is a method of conflict – an active, confrontational technique that people or movements use to assert political, social, economic or moral claims… In a very real sense, civil resistance constructively promotes conflict.”
Having created a list of 198 methods of non-violent action, Gene Sharp – sometimes called “the Clausewitz of non-violent warfare” – described them as “non-violent weapons… the direct equivalent of military weapons”. Sharp saw non-violent struggle as a form of warfare, arguing that a non-violent campaign should have the same level of strategic vision, tactical smarts and coordination as a successful military campaign – one reason he sought out the influential military historian and strategist Sir Basil Liddell Hart to discuss the topic in the late 1950s.
The often strategically brilliant US civil rights movement provides a good case study. Writing about the representation of Martin Luther King in the 2014 film ‘Selma’, Jessica Leber noted that the non-violent campaign he led in 1965 for African-American voting rights “was incredibly aggressive, brave, and strategic – in many cases aiming to force the state into violent opposition”.
Myth Three: non-violent struggle isn’t a realistic option when confronting dictatorships
Writing last year in support of Palestinian armed resistance to the Israeli occupation, Louis Allday approvingly quoted the former resistance fighter and South African president, Nelson Mandela: “Non-violent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do, but if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end.”
Like Allday, Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University, also believes non-violent struggle is not a realistic tactic in the face of violence. Speaking to Giles Fraser on the latter’s Confessions podcast, Andrews argued: “You have to be realistic. If you create a politics which can overturn Western capitalism, you are going to have to use violence. You are not going to have a choice because there will be violence meted out against you.”
In contrast, Chenoweth and Stephan noted: “The notion that non-violent action can be successful only if the adversary does not use violent repression is neither theoretically nor historically substantiated.” They argued that their findings are “true even under conditions in which most people would expect non-violent resistance to be futile, including situations in which dissent is typically met with harsh regime pressure”. Writing in 2003 about the misconceptions around non-violent resistance, the political scientist Kurt Schock argued that the evidence actually points to the opposite conclusion: “In fact non-violent action has been effective in brutally repressive contexts, and it has been ineffective in open democratic polities.”
There are many historical examples showing how largely non-violent movements played a central role in overthrowing repressive governments. The Shah of Iran in 1979, President Marcos’s oppressive 20-year reign in the Philippines in 1986 and President Bashir in Sudan in 2019 are just a few.
One reason non-violent struggle can overthrow brutal dictatorships is because, as Chenoweth and Stephan note, government repression is more likely to backfire against a non-violent campaign than it is against a violent campaign. This backfiring often leads to even greater mobilisation against the government, shifts among loyalists to the regime and sanctions against the violent offender.
What’s more, using a data set of 308 resistance campaigns between 1950 and 2013, Chenoweth and Evan Perkoski, from the University of Connecticut, highlight a “counterintuitive paradox” – that those campaigns which remain non-violent and unarmed with no significant foreign support are safest from mass killings. They concluded: “Non-violent uprisings are almost three times less likely than violent rebellions to encounter mass killings, all else being equal.”
Myth Four: non-violence isn’t realistic in the Global South
Speaking on a Novara Media livestream last year, host Michael Walker explained that he supports a strategy of non-violence in countries like the US and UK, countries which “are liberal democracies where public opinion matters”. However, he went on to note “the limits of non-violence in Global South countries” such as Indonesia and Chile, where reformist, largely non-violent social democratic movements and governments were violently overthrown by the military and CIA.
Last year, Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik wrote that in 2010, as she was travelling to Sudan, the country of her birth, at the beginning of what became the Arab Spring, “it was simply unfathomable that peaceful protests would overthrow an Arab dictator. It had never happened before.”
In reality, movements that have primarily relied on non-violent struggle have a long history in the Global South, including some successes in the Arab world.
Sudan itself provides two examples, with dictatorships toppled in 1964 and 1985 “through massive civil resistance campaigns”, according to Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, an assessment confirmed by Dr Willow Berridge in his 2015 book ‘Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan: the “Khartoum Springs” of 1964 and 1985’.
It is also worth noting that in the Novara Media livestream, Walker was referring to President Suharto’s murderous seizure of power in Indonesia in 1967, and Augusto Pinochet’s destruction of Allende’s democratically elected government in Chile in 1973. But he failed to mention that non-violent campaigns played a central role in ousting Suharto in 1999 and Pinochet in 1988.
Though pretty much unknown in the West, there are many other examples of non-violent campaigns playing a central role in regime change in the Global South. In 1944 peaceful demonstrations overthrew the Guatemalan dictator General Ubico. The same year, President Maximiliano Hernández Martínez in El Salvador was removed by mass civil resistance. Influenced by Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah led a popular, largely non-violent uprising to win independence for Ghana in 1957. Many more examples of the power of non-violent struggle are listed in Chenoweth’s book ‘Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs To Know’ – from the campaign for Zambia’s independence in 1964 to Brazil’s transition from military dictatorship to popular democracy in the 1980s, and Malawians bringing down 30-year dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda in the early 1990s.
Is the data on non-violence reliable?
As a seminal text with a bold conclusion, Chenoweth and Stephan’s ‘Why Civil Resistance Works’ has unsurprisingly received some criticism, including a number of academic responses.
All of the three critiques I have read argue the NAVCO database that Chenoweth and Stephan base their conclusions on is flawed.
In 2018 Mohammad Ali Kadivar and Neil Ketchley noted: “The coding of violence used in NAVCO derives primarily from the Correlates of War data set, which requires that all combatants be armed and for there to be at least one thousand battle deaths during the course of a campaign.” This definition, they added, “excises incidents of unarmed collective violence, which are otherwise coded as episodes of nonviolent protest.” Therefore, in addition to non-violent and violent campaigns, Kadivar and Ketchley presented a third category: “unarmed collective violence”, described as episodes which “inflict physical damage on persons and/or objects… without the use of firearms or explosives”.
With this expanded terminology, they concluded: “An event history analysis finds that riots are positively associated with political liberalisation in 103 non-democracies from 1990 to 2004,” and that, “In contrast to the assertions by non-violent resistance literature… acts of [unarmed collective] violence have not been detrimental to the cause of democratisation but may have even enhanced the chances of a democratising outcome.”
In a 2020 journal article in Critical Sociology, Alexei Anisin highlighted a number of campaigns that are missing from the NAVCO dataset. When these are included, he noted that from 1900-2006 non-violent campaigns were successful 48% of the time, unarmed violent campaigns 56% of the time, and violent campaigns 29% of the time.
Similarly, writing in the Comparative Politics journal in 2016, Fabrice Lehoucq noted that Chenoweth and Stephan omitted several campaigns that took place in Central America after 1900. Adding in these omitted examples he finds the success rate of non-violent and violent campaigns to be pretty much the same – 42% and 41%, respectively.
Chenoweth replied directly to Lehoucq’s criticism, noting the NAVCO database had been expanded and refined since 2011, and that “the aggregate statistics are virtually identical to those cited in ‘Why Civil Resistance Works’, with non-violent campaigns having a much higher success rate than violent campaigns.” Moreover, even if one were to agree that Lehoucq’s and Anisin’s analyses are accurate, then non-violent campaigns have close to the same success rate as “unarmed violence campaigns”, and close to or better success rates than “violent campaigns” – results which are very far away from the dismissive assertions of the UK Left.
It is also worth highlighting two key takeaways from ‘Why Civil Resistance Works’ that I am not aware of being seriously challenged. First, non-violent campaigns are associated with far less death and destruction than violent campaigns – compare the orgy of violence in Syria and Libya after 2011 with what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, for example. Second, non-violent campaigns are more likely to lead to more democratic forms of governance than violent campaigns, a finding which is echoed by a 2005 Freedom House study.
As Chenoweth noted in her reply to Lehoucq: “‘Why Civil Resistance Works’ was not intended to be the final word on the matter, but it has helped to provoke systematic academic inquiry on a topic that has long been neglected or even derided in scholarly circles.”
Future research will refine and challenge our existing assumptions about non-violence and violence. Having read a little around the subject, I’m struck by how complicated and often contradictory campaigns and movements are in the real world – history rarely provides definite answers. In addition to actively reading about the topic, supporters of non-violent action should welcome sincere, evidence-based research and criticism. This is, after all, how one gains a greater understanding of how the world works and how to make it better – not by reflexively rejecting and misrepresenting a concept that has a long history of creating positive change.