Tag Archives: Nonviolence

Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis: Interview with George Paxton

Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis: Interview with George Paxton
by Ian Sinclair

Open Democracy
19 July 2017

In his 2016 book Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis George Paxton, a Trustee of the Gandhi Foundation, sets out what is effectively secret history in a culture that reveres the violent struggle against Nazi Germany – Dunkirk and Churchill being the latest films that focus on the military campaign.

Ian Sinclair asked Paxton about the nonviolent resistance to Nazi Germany in Europe – its breadth, the methods it used and how it compares to the military struggle.

Ian Sinclair: What was the scale of the nonviolent resistance to the Nazis in occupied Europe? What were some of the methods used?

George Paxton: The extent of nonviolent resistance (NVR) used against the occupiers varied from country to country with the most active probably being Norway, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. The attitude of the Nazis to Eastern Europe, which they wanted to clear of its population in order to settle Germans, meant that the resistance was different in nature.

The size of the different campaigns of resistance ranged from a single individual to large sections of the population. In the case of the Norwegian teachers opposition to Nazification of the schools it was around 10,000 teachers supported by about 100,000 parents. Some strikes elsewhere involved even more than this.

The methods used in the various campaigns were very diverse such as marches, wearing symbols of resistance, private and public letters of protest, refusing to be conscripted for work, resigning from professional bodies taken over by the Nazis, hiding Jews, helping Jews escape, listening to BBC radio broadcasts, producing underground newspapers, collecting funds for resistance, deliberate slow working and many more.

IS: You include a section with a number of case studies of nonviolent resistance to the Nazis. Do you have a favourite?

GP: It is difficult to choose one but for a small scale resistance, involving just dozens of individuals, the White Rose group in Germany is one of the most impressive. Set up mainly by students at the University of Munich and including a brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl, the group produced leaflets attacking the immoral nature of the Nazi regime and also the likelihood of its failure. Leaflets were printed secretly then posted out to individuals and left in public places. Groups were also started in other German towns and leaflets were transported by a resister by train in a suitcase. But due to a careless act when Hans and Sophie were distributing leaflets at their university, they were arrested, interrogated, quickly tried and executed.  This was followed by other arrests, executions and imprisonments. While their resistance was a failure in that the revolt of students they hoped to trigger did not occur, knowledge of their courageous acts spread widely in Germany and indeed abroad.

A contrasting successful resistance was the rescue of Jews, mainly children, by the villagers of Chambon-sur-Lignon on a high plateau south-west of Lyons in France. This village (and others in the region) became a hide-out for those escaping the Nazis and became a centre of safety, particularly for children. The inspiration for this action came from the Protestant pastor and his wife, André and Magda Trocmé. André was an incomer from the north-east of France and a pacifist and his actions were a product of his Christian belief which influenced also the nature of the resistance. Thus he did not deny that Jews were hidden in the village and surrounding farms but refused to tell the police where they were hidden. André survived the occupation, although imprisoned for a time, and several thousand Jews and others hidden there survived until liberation.

There are detailed studies of these two cases published but many more have not been studied in detail and indeed no doubt some actions have been lost to history.

IS: What struck me reading your book was how Nazi Germany was not all powerful in the countries they occupied, but was often forced to compromise and, occasionally, to back down because of nonviolent resistance. Can you talk about some of the successes those carrying out nonviolent resistance had?

GP: One of the most outstanding successes of resistance was the rescue of the Danish Jews. Denmark was treated relatively mildly by the Germans in part because the Danes were willing to supply Germany with agricultural produce. Their own government was allowed considerable independence for a while although the relationship soured eventually and the Germans took over. The local German administration was then ordered to round up the Jews for deportation to Germany. But at the German embassy was an attaché, Georg Duckwitz, who contacted a leading Danish politician to tell him when the round-up was to take place. He in turn informed the Chief Rabbi who passed the word to the Jews, while non-Jewish friends hid Jews and then transported them to the coast where boats were hired to take them to neutral Sweden.  Although there were only about 8,000 Jews in Denmark almost all of them survived, even the few hundred who were captured and sent to Germany were not sent to the death camps as a promise had been given to SS General Werner Best, the German head of government in Denmark, that they would not be.

In the Netherlands an attempt to conscript former Dutch soldiers who had been disarmed by the Germans was met by the largest strike in the occupied countries. It began in mines and factories and spread until it involved half a million people who took to the streets. In response more than 100 people were executed but far fewer former soldiers enrolled than the Germans wanted.

In Belgium, students and staff at the University of Brussels protested at the employment of Nazi staff and then organised teaching underground.

In the Netherlands and Norway the Germans failed to bring the doctors’ professional associations under their control due to non-cooperation by the doctors.

Opposition in Germany, particularly by Catholics, forced the stopping of the ‘euthanasia’ programme although many had been murdered before it was abandoned.

A recent study, Hitler’s Compromises by Nathan Stoltzfus, shows that Hitler was very careful to keep the German population ‘on side’. He was wary of dissent and compromised if it looked as if opposition to a policy was growing, e.g. the euthanasia programme and the Catholic opposition to attempted Nazification in the Catholic Church; also the effective opposition of German wives to the deportation of their Jewish husbands from Berlin.

NVR in Eastern Europe was different due to the more ruthless methods of the invader. In Poland, in spite of the extreme repression, the Nazis failed to destroy Polish culture due to the extensive development of underground organisations. School and university teaching continued in people’s houses with degrees being awarded and research papers published; courts conducted trials; political parties operated with a parliament and government departments also; separate military and civilian resistance groups operated; money was obtained from the Polish Government-in-exile in London.

The hiding and rescuing of Jews was on a large scale throughout Europe with possibly as many as one million Jews being saved (see Philip Friedman’s Their Brothers’ Keepers); this being done at great risk to the rescuers.

IS: Why do you think some campaigns were successful and others not?

GP: I think solidarity within the resisting group must be of great importance. The absolute numbers of resisters may not always be significant. For example, in Belgium insufficient solidarity and firmness by the higher civil servants and judges led to the Germans ultimately achieving their aims. Support from the general population was important elsewhere, e.g. funds to pay teachers on strike or working underground.

There were some quite important incidental factors such as nearness of mountains and forests for hiding and a border with a neutral country for escape.

The use of nonviolence itself is of great importance. A violent opposition will be resisted with maximum violence from the controlling power but nonviolent resistance will send different signals, e.g. we are less of a threat to you. This may give rise to a degree of sympathy among the security forces. The resisters have to be firm but not aggressive. The occupied population has the advantage of superior numbers if they choose to use their power.

IS: You contrast what you call Gandhian resistance with the pragmatic nonviolent action that people like Gene Sharp advocate. What are the main differences between the two?

GP: There isn’t a great deal dividing Sharp and Gandhi. But most of the NVR used by resisters during the Nazi occupation was pragmatic in the sense that it was not usually underpinned by nonviolent theory; in fact it simply did not involve the use of weapons and so other writers prefer to call it civilian resistance.

Sharp developed NVR theory which was independent of religious belief, Gandhi’s or others. In reality Gandhi’s beliefs were very inclusive although he tended to use Hindu terms which Sharp wanted to avoid as he did not want to tie nonviolence to any particular culture. Both of their approaches are grounded in ethics. Sharp’s academic work actually grew out of his interest in Gandhi’s career but Sharp put more emphasis on the use of power in considering the possible mechanism of NVR; Gandhi hoped for conversion of the opponent.

IS: How do you respond to the argument that it was ultimately violent action that ended the Third Reich, not nonviolent resistance?

GP: People in general and governments in particular think of defence only in terms of military action. This is still true today as it was in the 1930s. Therefore for most of the occupied populations a nonviolent resistance was simply not in their minds, except for a small number of pacifists. However, when their country was occupied and they did not have the means to resist in the conventional way the braver and more imaginative sometimes turned to non-military means.

Most people expected their countries to be liberated by military means from outside but what we need to take into consideration is the cost of violent resistance, which in WWII proved to be enormous in terms of deaths and destruction. And as Gandhi pointed out before WWII began the Allies would need to resort to the Nazis’ foul methods in order to ‘win’. When one remembers the blanket bombing of the German and Japanese cities which were largely occupied by civilians it is difficult to disagree.

The NVR used in the occupied countries was too small in scale to defeat the invaders but I believe the potential is there, and with the knowledge we have today future conflicts could be handled by NVR.

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Book review: Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis by George Paxton

Book review: Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis by George Paxton
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2017

“But what about Nazi Germany?” No doubt many Peace News readers have been asked this question when they have voiced support for nonviolence outside activist circles.

Summarising a range of published material, George Paxton shows that nonviolent resistance to Adolf Hitler’s government was widespread. And though it is often poorly referenced and somewhat repetitive, Nonviolence Resistance to the Nazis feels like one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time.

From underground newspapers, open letters, graffiti, socially ostracising the occupiers, to slow working, boycotts and hiding and rescuing Jews, Paxton sets out what is effectively secret history in a culture that reveres the violent struggle against Nazi Germany. Who knew, for example, that on the first day Copenhagen was occupied handwritten leaflets appeared on the streets, titled ‘Ten Commandments for Passive Resistance’?

In the book’s middle section Paxton zeros in on case studies of resistance, such as the extraordinary White Rose Group. Active in Munich in the 1940s, this secret band of young people printed thousands of anti-Nazi leaflets and distributed them throughout Germany – often travelling to other cities to post them on to avoid detection.

Though they worked under an extremely repressive state, individuals, groups and populations were able to win some limited successes – highlighting the fact the Nazi leadership was not all powerful, but often compromised for political reasons. In Denmark nearly all of the Jewish population were rescued from the Holocaust, while a 1941 strike in France against food shortages involving 100,000 miners won more food coupons. In Berlin in 1943 the non-Jewish wives of Jews protested in the street over the threatened deportation of their husbands. Though the Gestapo HQ was close by “they did not act against the women fearing that the protests might spread”, notes Paxton, and the deportations were suspended.

Citing French historian Jacques Semelin, Paxton argues a number of factors increased the chances of success: a united front by the occupied populace, strong democratic traditions and grassroots organisations, a belief in tolerance and a good source of money and food. Like nonviolence guru Gene Sharp (PN 2543), Paxton, who is a Trustee of the Gandhi Foundation, believes that nonviolent resistance would have been most effective against Nazi Germany if it had been deployed at the earliest stage possible.

A goldmine of information, fascinating stories and inspiration for peace activists, Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis deserves a wide readership.

Jeremy Corbyn: coups and anti-coups

Jeremy Corbyn: coups and anti-coups
by Ian Sinclair
Left Foot Forward
29 May 2016

In April 2002 the Venezuelan military, supported by the nation’s corporate media, carried out a coup d’état against Huge Chavez, the democratically elected president whose popular government had been undertaking significant reforms in favour of the nation’s poor. Chavez was arrested and Pedro Carmona, the head of the nation’s largest business group, was declared interim president. The constitution was suspended, the National Assembly disbanded and Supreme Court closed. The US quickly moved to recognise the new government and pressured other countries to follow its lead.

However, in an extraordinary example of people power, fewer than 48 hours after he was forced out, Chavez was returned to office after hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans poured into the streets of Caracas demanding he be reinstated.

Gene Sharp, the world’s leading expert and proponent of non-violent resistance, has a name for what happened in Venezuela: an anti-coup. Sharp argues successful anti-coups were also staged in the Soviet Union in 1991, against hardliners intent on deposing reforming President Mikhail Gorbachev, and in France in 1961 to stop a group of generals from overthrowing Charles de Gaulle’s government.

Should Sharp write about anti-coups in the future, he will have another case study to discuss: Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Since his landslide election in September 2015, Corbyn has faced an almost uniformly hostile media and constant rumours of attempts to unseat him, including from a senior serving British General.

His enemies heralded the local elections in May 2015 as a particular danger point, with reports suggesting there would be an attempt to remove Corbyn if Labour performed below the very high bar set by his opponents in the party. However, on the day before the local elections the Guardian reported “Jeremy Corbyn’s critics inside his party have set aside the possibility of a post-election leadership challenge in the face of warnings by pollsters that the party leader remains impossible to defeat in any vote of Labour members.” According to Joe Twyman from YouGov, the polling data confirmed Corbyn remained “a country mile” ahead of other potential candidates. “The bottom line is that those eligible to vote in the Labour party leadership election strongly supported Jeremy Corbyn last year and that has not significantly changed”. The Guardian went on to note that Corbyn is “being shored up by the grassroots movement Momentum, which has compiled a database of more than 100,000 supporters that it believes could be used within days to help fight off any potential challenge.” In other words, popular opinion and grassroots pressure has staved off an attempt to remove Corbyn (though the mainstream media will never frame it in these terms, of course).

Jon Lansman, the Chair of Momentum, explained Momentum’s role in an interview with the Guardian in March 2016, saying he thinks it is possible that people might move on Corbyn.  Asked if Momentum is preparing for an attempted coup, he claimed they are not, though suggested the group’s huge database of supporters and networks of local groups could be activated should the need arise. “Part of my role has been to ensure that Momentum is equipped to campaign to defend the legitimacy of Jeremy’s leadership”, Lansman told the New Statesman in May 2016.

With Labour’s predicted local elections meltdown failing to materialise, Sadiq Khan elected as London mayor and a new YouGov poll putting support for Corbyn within the Labour Party at 64 percent it seems the MP for North Islington is safe for now.

Though it may be obvious, it bears repeating just how high the stakes are for the British people: arguably Corbyn’s leadership will be the best opportunity for significant progressive change in Britain for a generation. And, as I argued just after Corbyn was elected Labour leader, just like all progressive change throughout history, it is the size, power and tactical nous of the popular movement/s supporting Corbyn’s leadership that will be the deciding factor: whether he continues as leader of the Labour Party, the extent to which he will need to compromise his political positions and his chances of being elected Prime Minister in 2020.

If they can be built and sustained, then the popular campaigns and mass movements backing Corbyn should have two broad aims. First, to protect his leadership from the incessant attacks – from the Tories, from big business, from the military, from within the Labour Party and from the media (Corbyn’s politics inevitably means he has a lot of powerful enemies). Activists need to understand it is not just the right-wing press that have their knives out, but that much of the liberal press, including the Guardian and BBC, has played an integral part in the ferocious propaganda campaign targeting the Labour leader. To change the media story, the movement should go on the offensive, pressuring news outlets and journalists, setting the agenda and controlling the narrative as much as possible. Popular pressure should also be applied on Labour MPs who are attempting to undermine Corbyn and his political positions.

Second, pressure should be applied to Corbyn himself and his supporters within the Labour Party – to make sure he keeps to his promises. The more active support he gets, the more confidence he will have in pushing forward his political vision. But more importantly, pressure needs to be applied on Corbyn to push him to be more green and radical. For example, Sadiq Khan – whose Mayoral campaign was backed by Corbyn – has already removed a key obstacle to the expansion of City Airport. In addition, despite the rising climate chaos engulfing the planet Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell continue to push for economic growth. “In other words”, the Green’s Rupert Read noted, “they repeatedly call for worsening the number one cause of the ecological crisis.” McDonnell’s positive noises about a Universal Basic Income suggest the Labour leadership is open to considering ideas coming from the radical grassroots.

Importantly, the mass movement backing Corbyn needs to be pro-active, not reactive as Lansman’s comments above suggest. It is imperative that Corbyn does not continue to get tangled up in Westminster’s web of petty political point scoring. If Corbyn is to have any chance of becoming Prime Minister then talk of coups and plots and the never-ending intra-Labour snipping needs to end quickly. Because if the atmospherics and coverage around Labour is still full of coup rumours and often concocted scandals like the anti-Semitism ‘controversy’, come 2019-20 then it will likely be game over. Instead Corbyn’s team needs to go on the offensive and set out their political vision and reach out and build alliances with like-minded politicians and parties such as the Greens.

Hidden within the liberal rhetoric of his run for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008, Senator John Edwards made some important remarks about the possibility for political change. According to Edwards, the general public and incoming president need to be clear: an “epic fight” is required with “entrenched, powerful monied interests” to reclaim back American democracy so it works for the whole population, not just the few. “We better be ready for that battle”, he warned.

The question when it comes to Corbyn and changing British society for the better in the face of established power is this: is the Left and Corbyn’s supporters up for the “epic fight” that is required? If not, we better be. And soon.

Why civil resistance works

Why Civil Resistance Works
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
17 February 2014

I’ve been reviewing books for over eight years and feel I’ve just finished one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It’s a book that should cause a paradigm shift in international politics and foreign policy because it turns a lot of conventional thinking on its head.

The book is Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, co-authored by Erica Chenoweth, an Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, and Maria J. Stephan, a strategic planner with the US State Department.

Analysing 323 examples of resistance campaigns and rebellion from 1900 to 2006, Chenoweth and Stephan conclude nonviolent campaigns have been twice as successful as violent campaigns in achieving their objectives. They contend that this difference is down to nonviolent campaigns being more likely to attract mass support, noting “the moral, physical, informational, and commitment barriers are much lower for nonviolent resistance than for violent insurgency.” 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 overall chances of success. Moreover, they find that nonviolent resistance campaigns are more likely to lead to democratic forms of government than violent campaigns.

Chenoweth and Stephan’s conclusions chime with Gene Sharp, the world’s leading expert on nonviolence, who told me that using violence to overthrow a dictatorship was foolish: “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? They are guaranteed to win, almost certainly.”

Like me, no doubt many people will be surprised by these findings. But our ignorance isn’t surprising when one considers just how dominant the conventional view of power and violence is: physical and military force is seen as the most powerful and effective action an individual, group or society can take, while nonviolence is viewed as idealistic, passive and fearful of confrontation.

Nonviolent resistance has been hidden from history. We can all rattle off the names and dates of famous battles in recent history, but how many of us know about how peaceful demonstrations overthrew the Guatemalan dictator General Ubico in 1944? Or how mass protests overthrew Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986? If Ben Affleck wasn’t so American-centric Argo would have told the extraordinary story of how the Shah of Iran was deposed in 1979 by a campaign of civil resistance rather than focussing on staff from the US Embassy that had supported the dictatorship.

Civil resistance is rarely taken seriously in the media. Even the most radical voices at the Guardian seem to be as quick as many others to support violence. Writing about the looming war in Iraq in late 2002 George Monbiot quickly summarised one proposed diplomatic solution to the crisis before arguing “If war turns out to be the only means of removing Saddam, then let us support a war whose sole and incontestable purpose is that and only that”. A decade later Comment is Free regular Richard Seymour dismissed the idea of nonviolent resistance to the Syrian Government and backed violent resistance as the most effective option.

“Ah, this is all well and good”, the sceptic will say, “but how can nonviolence possibly succeed against a repressive dictatorship?” According to Chenoweth and Stephan, the evidence they have collected “rejects the claim that there are some types of states against which only violence will work.” Rather their results show “that when regimes crack down violently, reliance on a nonviolent strategy increases the probability of campaign success”. The Iranian Government overthrown in 1979 had the worst human rights record of any country in the world, according to Amnesty International in 1976. Not harsh enough for you? How about East Timor, where Amnesty International reported Indonesian troops had killed 200,000 people between their 1975 invasion and 1999 – approximately one third of the total population of East Timor. Despite this mass murder a largely nonviolent mass movement eventually managed to eject the Indonesian forces, and declared independence in 2002.

Another tick in the pro column for nonviolent resistance is the fact it generally leads to a much smaller death toll – on all sides of a conflict. For example, the largely nonviolent people power in Tunisia and Egypt overthrew their dictators with far less death and destruction than the violent (and externally supported) uprisings in Libya and Syria.

Of course, nonviolent resistance is not a magic wand and does not guarantee success. However, the hard evidence shows it generally has the strategic edge over violent resistance. With the debate over Western intervention in Syria rumbling on among liberal commentators, Chenoweth and Stephan’s findings raise profound questions for those living under dictatorships and Western citizens considering how best to help those resisting oppression.

Interview with Gene Sharp

Interview with Gene Sharp
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
March 2012

Arguably the best-known advocate of nonviolence working today, through books such as 1993’s ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’ Gene Sharp has influenced popular revolutions and revolts across the globe. He was interviewed by Ian Sinclair for PN.

Peace News: When and why did you first get interested in the serious study of nonviolent struggle?

Gene Sharp: Well, the world was in a bit of a mess [after the Second World War], and I began to learn that there was a phenomenon of nonviolence that had been in existence for a long time; that some means of conflict are necessary and people were still trying to use it [nonviolence] in various parts of the world. So this could prove to be very, very important, so I started studying and reading over quite a number of years. It goes way back.

PN: How would you describe your own politics?

GS: I have a chapter on that in the [1980] book Social Power and Political Freedom. And the chapter is ‘Rethinking Politics’. You have to rethink politics, not choose from what’s on the present menu. I cooperate with people with various political perspectives. There’s no one that I find so adequate to simply accept it and embrace it.

PN: You wouldn’t call yourself a pacifist?

GS: Not anymore. That doesn’t mean I’m for violence but, maybe unjustly, or maybe not, pacifists are known for their refusal to use violence. And doing a number of other good things, perhaps.

It goes back to the old PPU [Peace Pledge Union] slogan: “War will cease when men refuse to fight.” But I don’t think you get rid of war that way. I think you have to have a substitute. You have to, unless you just want to make a moral gesture.

I’ve done that [Sharp spent nine months in prison for protesting against conscription during the Korean War]. But moral gestures, to be crude, don’t achieve much, sometimes nothing. Sometimes a little bit.

PN: Underpinning your ideas and arguments is a specific understanding of how power works in society. Could you summarise this for people who may not be familiar with your work?

GS: I will do that but it’s expressed at length in the first volume of the paperback edition of The Politics of Nonviolent Action. I think it’s the first chapter on the nature of political power… Power has sources. It’s not something in a package. And where those sources are there and available to the regime, there can be great power.

I think I identify six or seven sources: a moral authority – they have the right to rule or the right to be our government, for whatever reason; the control of the economy; the control of the civil service; the control of the police; the control of the military; and certain more fuzzy factors, more psychological factors.

If those are available then there’s power. But those sources, people in government positions, they weren’t born with those; they come from somebody else. Those can be traced and they all come from the obedience and cooperation of individuals, or more commonly, institutions and groups of people. They make them available, and in some rare situations their sources are not made available readily, or they’re withdrawn. Massive non-cooperation movements are an example. Then their power is taken away.

That’s why some governments fall apart, like the Soviet Union and Eastern European governments fell apart, because they weren’t able to mobilise those sources.

PN: What are the problems of using violence to overthrow a dictatorship?

GS: It’s foolish. Stupid. 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? They are guaranteed to win, almost certainly.

PN: Are there any instances where you have supported violent resistance to occupation or invasion?

GS: I’m often happy that people opposing a regime have won. Libya’s used as an example now, which the Libyans did not do themselves – the French air force, US military capacity and so forth. It wasn’t a struggle by the Libyans, and now it’s not their victory. I was told the number of Libyan casualties and the physical destruction are absolutely horrendous – far, far worse than what’s been going on in Syria, as horrible as that is. You have greater casualties with violence.

It’s a very good chance you’re going to lose and if you get outside help then part of the control afterwards is in the hands of the foreigners for whatever motives. That doesn’t sound very good to me.

PN: What have been the most successful examples of nonviolent revolution in recent history?

GS: There are a whole variety of them. You could look at Poland, for example. It took ten years but they did it. They withstood their own authoritarian regime back in the ’30s. They withstood the Nazi occupation and the Soviet occupation and opposed the Communist government. Eastern Europe – Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, where we [the Albert Einstein Institution] did consult.

Those countries were already part of the Soviet Union and they got out using these means. We directly consulted with those governments in person. They got out with very few casualties. I think in Lithuania it may have been 14 dead, in Latvia eight and in Estonia nobody was killed. To me the [resistance to the 1991] hard-line coup in the Soviet Union is another example.

PN: As you will know, with the Arab spring there have been numerous reports of your influence on the various revolutions and revolts.

GS: I don’t know. I get these reports all the time. We had known that there was interest in my writing in Egypt for a few years. We even heard that there was a special headquarters that had been set up in an apartment in Cairo and occasionally we have Egyptians visit us in Boston, Massachusetts. But none of that proves anything in terms of real documentation – how you transfer all the knowledge gained just by reading, talking or listening, to people’s actions.

PN: In How To Start A Revolution you say you are primarily trying to “understand the nature and potential of nonviolent forces of struggle to undermine dictatorships.” Are your arguments and ideas transferable to making radical transformations in industrial democracies like the US and UK?

GS: From Dictatorship to Democracy is only a small piece of my writings. A very small piece. The nature of nonviolent struggle is broader. My 1973 book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action was never published in the UK. I’m hoping to do it in a large edition to be published here in a couple years. It’s on the nature of the technique: what are its methods, how does it work? That then can be adjusted for application for a variety of broadly democratic purposes – economic objectives, political objectives, anti-colonial movements, extensions of the franchise and so forth.

So you wouldn’t take the model From Dictatorship to Democracy and apply it to social revolution because that’s a different objective. You’d have to have a different analysis. But a nonviolent struggle can be extremely important in the new model for a social revolution.

PN: The most important and influential social movement in the US at the minute seems to be the Occupy protests. What is your assessment of these?

GS: It’s been succeeding and accomplishing what? It’s an expression of people who are very frustrated and quite angry. And for damn good reasons. They think politically they’re not having the impact they had wanted. They see the extreme non-distribution of wealth in the country is getting worse. It’s coming out even in the Republican debates with the candidates there.

So people who’ve been in the middle class their whole lives are now becoming quite poor. And I don’t know what political consequences there are going to be over this but all that is happening.

The Occupy movement expresses some of that frustration. It has spread not only within the United States but also in other countries. Because people think there’s something they can do. But they think that by expressing themselves, they think that’s going to change things. And to be honest it won’t. It’s too little. Not enough. It is only symbolism.

You don’t get great economic and political changes by symbolism only, which any radical would agree with. Now whether they will do other thinking, they are going beyond this – there are some signs that some of them are. Whether it’s going to be adequate, I have my doubts. If they do this thinking they are going to win, and they don’t, they may collapse and think: “We’re as helpless as we thought we were and so won’t do anything.” Or they’ll go over to violence which will bring down greater repression, predictably. It won’t change the situation.

PN: You have been involved in activism and academic writing and work for a long time. What keeps you going? Do you have moments of doubt?

GS: Not really, no. Maybe I’m kind of a stubborn person. That always helps. To see on the one hand the great need for the application of nonviolent struggle, to see the great impact when it is applied wisely, which is not always the case.

Sometimes you get contact and letters from people you had never heard of, about what this has meant for them, sometimes individuals see the movement developing. And sometimes you see the regime has come down. The victors have won. That’s encouraging.

But we can still learn to do this more skillfully, more effectively. Sometimes we know a lot, but people are unaware of what we do know. Sometimes we may not know what we need to know. My ignorance is vast.

People come and ask me what they should do, and I say: “I’m not going to tell you! I don’t do that. Here’s what you need to learn and understand in order to do this yourselves.” That’s why our guide is called Self-Liberation.

You may have seen this, it’s on our website. It’s kind of deceptive but not on purpose. People would come to us and finally we figured out what they need to plan a strategy, they need three things. They have to know their own situation in depth, far better than we would know it – they need to know it better.

They need to know nonviolent struggle in depth. Not the superficial impressions that people claim they know – they don’t. So there’s a condensed version of what they need to read, it’s only 900 pages. And that’s condensed.

And then they need to learn how to think strategically; how to act facing opposition so you can actually accomplish something. Strategy being probably more important in nonviolent struggle than it is in military conflict. If they learn all that, then there’s a chance they can plan their own struggle.

PN: But surely most people in Egypt and other places where they have used your ideas and arguments have not read all your writings?

GS: No, but the masses of people didn’t formulate the strategy. That is for getting people competent enough to plan a strategy. Then there are many people who can be very important and very effective in conducting a struggle – they don’t have to read all that. But somebody needs to – as many as possible – need to have that know-how. This is people learning how to do this. This is new. They don’t need a Gandhi.

What if this existed in 1930, all this knowledge and know-how? Before Hitler came to power? If people who struggled against Hitler had greater knowledge of how to conduct struggle effectively to prevent him ever succeeding in becoming chancellor in the first place?

When Hitler came into the government the Nazis were very frightened of a general strike. A nonviolent method. They were very frightened of that. If only the opposition really knew how to conduct this kind of struggle effectively, the world would have been very different. But it didn’t happen.

You ask me: “Why don’t I call myself a pacifist?” I don’t favour violence but I think the old assumption “you’re either for war or you’re a pacifist” is wrong.

There’s a third position, which I think was Gandhi’s position. I’m working to develop nonviolent struggle as a viable alternative. Only if you have a viable alternative can you have a chance of getting it used and being effective. And that is not a case of refusing to use violence, that’s a case of using nonviolent struggle competently. That needs a new name. I’m not sure what that name would be.