Tag Archives: Nonviolence

The strategic and tactical genius of the US Civil Rights Movement

The strategic and tactical genius of the US Civil Rights Movement
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
25 April 2018

The recent death of American nonviolence guru Gene Sharp and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King provide a good opportunity to reflect on the key role nonviolent action has played in winning progressive change.

Sharp, whose extensive writings have influenced many of the campaigns that have overthrown governments across the world, repeatedly emphasised the importance of planning and strategy in carrying out effective nonviolent action. Indeed, strategy is “probably more important in non-violent struggle than it is in military conflict”, he told me when I interviewed him in 2012 for Peace News newspaper. For Sharp, those wishing to understand nonviolent struggle needed to research the topic in depth – reading, at a minimum, his lengthy studies on the subject – rather than basing their opinion on “superficial impressions”.

Even though his birth is marked by a national holiday in the US many people – including myself have a very superficial understanding of the US Civil Rights Movement King led in the 1950s and 1960s. This ignorance is frustrating because the movement is one of the best known and most successful nonviolent campaigns in recent history.

Like Sharp, King and the wider leadership of the Civil Rights Movement were incredibly smart strategists and tacticians, with a good knowledge of the theory behind nonviolent struggle, especially the movement Mahatma Gandhi led in India which forced out the British imperialists.

Two fascinating documentaries highlight the detailed understanding and use of strategy and planning by the movement that rocked the Deep South in the post-war period. Though they have largely been forgotten they are both available on Youtube.

Released in 1999, A Force More Powerful tells the story of the movement to desegregate the city of Nashville, Tennessee in 1959-60. Having spent three years in India studying the work of Gandhi, Methodist minister James Lawson was invited down to Nashville by King to train local Black students and citizens to fight for their civil rights.

Lawson set up and led a series of evening workshops in a small church near Fisk University where, he explains, he “took the whole group through a holistic view of nonviolence – its history, its roots in the bible, its roots in Christian thought, the methods of nonviolence.”

After considering the situation, Lawson remembers the group decided to target the lunch counters and restaurants in downtown Nashville and start to research the issue. To prepare for the struggle the workshops included role play with activists ‘sitting’ at lunch counter while being racially abused and physically attacked, and low-key, small scale ‘test’ sit-ins were conducted.

For Lawson, successful nonviolent action necessitated “fierce discipline and training, and strategizing and planning” which “can’t happen spontaneously, it has to be done systematically.”

The sit-ins began in February 1960, and following mass arrests, violence against the activists and a series of escalations by the movement including a consumer boycott by the Black community, the city has agreed to desegregate lunch counters by May 1960.

“We were warriors. We had been prepared”, notes one activist in the documentary. “This was like a nonviolent academy, equivalent to West Point [military academy].”

Despite many successes, the Civil Rights Movement did not simply steamroll over the racist establishment in the Deep South but suffered many difficulties and defeats during the period, all of which had to be recognised and learned from.

The late-1980s 14-part US documentary series Eyes On The Prize tells of one such setback. Like Nashville, Black people in Albany, Georgia had been campaigning to end segregation. In late 1961 the local leadership of the Albany Movement invited King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to the city to energise the campaign.

Keen students of Gandhi, the SCLC understood a central strategy in the successful campaign in India had been the staging confrontational nonviolent protests with the understanding the oppressor would react violently, creating media-friendly drama and sympathy for the nonviolent protestors. Movement organisers “expected the same reaction” in Albany that they “encountered in most southern communities: police brutality”, the documentary’s narrator explains. However, they didn’t reckon with Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett, who had researched SCLC’s ideas about nonviolent struggle. “Pritchett was a thoroughly professional law enforcement officer who had the acumen to realise police brutality or violence from white mobs, would draw newspaper reporters to Albany and create sympathy for the movement”, Professor Adam Fairclough notes in his 2001 book Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890-2000. “Pritchett trained his men to employ a ‘nonviolent approach’ toward demonstrators.”

With the internally divided movement fighting for the broad goal of ending segregation in the city, King began serving a 45-day sentence in July 1962, determined to stay in jail, as this would draw attention to, and increase support for, the cause. Conversely, Pritchett “understood that it was better to have King outside than inside jail” and secretly arranged for King’s bail to be paid, according to Fairclough. Having been forced out of prison, a depressed King left the still segregated city in August 1962.

Writing in his autobiography, King admits “The mistake I made there [Albany] was to protest against segregation generally rather than against a single and distinct facet of it. Our protest was so vague that we got nothing, and the people were left very depressed and in despair.”

Having learned some heard lessons in Albany, King and the SCLC decided their next target would be Birmingham, Alabama, a Klu Klux Klan stronghold and powder keg of racist oppression. Though there are, of course, many factors behind the success or failure of any campaign, one central factor in Birmingham was likely the presence of Commissioner ‘Bull’ Connor – “the antithesis of the calm, professional Laurie Pritchett… a vain, short-tempered, publicity-seeking bully, with a notorious reputation for racial extremism”, writes Fairclough.

“We knew that when we came to Birmingham that if Bull Connor was still in control, he would do something to benefit our movement”, Wyatt Tee Walker, the first executive director of the SCLC, is quoted as saying in US historian David Garrow’s 1986 book about the SCLC, Bearing The Cross.

Beginning in early 1963, the initial protests made little impact, receiving criticism from some Black businesses and a number of local (white) clergymen. In response the leadership of the movement escalated the campaign. King was jailed for several days, and – controversially – Black school children were mobilised, with marches organised. With tensions mounting, events came to a head, with Connor turning water canon and police dogs on the protesters. The violence gained national attention, the news coverage shocking the American public and wider world. “It was a masterpiece of the use of media to explain a cause to the general public of a nation”, local attorney David Vann explains. The campaign continued, with thousands more arrested, and desegregation was eventually won in May 1963.

The movement employed similar strategies in Selma, Alabama, focusing on one goal – winning a strong voting rights law. The 1965 campaign was dramatised in the award-winning 2014 film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay.

In one gripping scene showing the movement’s leadership discusses the campaign, King (played by David Oyelowo) explains the problems in Albany – that the SCLC made many mistakes, while Pritchett didn’t: “There was no drama”, and therefore no media coverage, he says.

One of the central aims of the Selma campaign is to the attention of an inattentive President Lyndon Johnson, King continues. The only way of doing this “is by being on the front page of the national press every morning and by being on the TV news every night”, he argues. “And that requires drama.”

Turning to the young activists who have been coordinating the campaign in Selma so far, King asks about local sheriff Jim Clark: “Is he Laurie Pritchett, or is he Bull Connor?”

Told Clark is like Connor, one of King’s SCLC colleagues shouts “Bingo!”

 

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Why are we so ignorant about the rich history of nonviolent struggle?

Why are we so ignorant about the rich history of nonviolent struggle?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
26 April 2018

Writing about the recent death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Guardian columnist Afua Hirsch made an extraordinary claim about the ending of Apartheid in South Africa in 1994.

“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”, she argued. “It took revolutionaries, pure and simple. People willing to break the law, to kill and be killed.”

Fellow Guardian writer Owen Jones tweeted in support: “Apartheid was brought down by revolutionaries, not peaceful protest. Brilliant piece by @afuahirsch.”

Despite these dismissive assertions by two of the most influential voices on the British Left, in reality “nonviolent action proved to be a major factor in the downfall of Apartheid”, as Stephen Zunes, a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, wrote in the Journal of Modern African Studies in 1999.

Professor Lester Kurtz, a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at George Mason University, summarises the key events in a 2010 article for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. Founded in 1912 the African National Congress (ANC) protested non-violently against white supremacist in South African for several decades with few gains. Frustrated by this failure Nelson Mandela and others established and led an armed resistance (Umkhonto we Sizwe), which was also unable to bring down the oppressive system. “In the end a concerted grassroots nonviolent civil resistance movement in coalition with international support and sanctions forced the white government to negotiate”, Kurtz explains. Writing in 1987, American theologian Walter Wink argued the 1980s movement to end Apartheid was “probably the largest grassroots eruption of diverse nonviolent strategies in a single struggle in human history.” If you are looking for a short and accessible account of the campaign check out the brilliant 2011 book Counter Power: Making Change Happen by grassroots activist Tim Gee.

That Hirsch and Jones could get it so wrong highlights the tragic failure of proponents and scholars of nonviolent action to educate progressives and the wider British public about the rich and impactful history of nonviolent struggle across the world.

Yes, there is a certain level of awareness about famous instances of nonviolent resistance such as the campaign Mahatma Gandhi led that helped to end British rule in India, and the Civil Rights movement in 50s and 60s America. Yet our knowledge of even these struggles is often sketchy and superficial. More broadly, many associate nonviolence with passivity and moderation. Hirsh incorrectly assumes one cannot be both nonviolent and “willing to break the law… and be killed”. In practice the key to successful nonviolent campaigns is their ability to confront and coerce centres of power – in short, to seek out conflict. Writing about the portrayal of US civil rights leader Martin Luther King in the 2014 film Selma, Fast Company magazine’s Jessica Leber notes the nonviolent campaign he led “was incredibly aggressive, brave, and strategic – in many cases aiming to force the state into violent opposition.”

For anyone wishing to understand the power of nonviolence the seminal text is 2011’s Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by US academics Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan. The book does two important things: First it shows that campaigns of nonviolent resistance have been twice as successful as their violent counterparts in achieving their goals. And second, the huge database (comprised of 323 campaigns between 1900 and 2006) that their findings are based on provides the bones of what is effectively a secret history of successful nonviolent struggles.

Who knew about the mass nonviolent campaigns that overthrew dictatorships in Guatemala and El Salvador in 1944? Or that people power put an end to President Marcos’s oppressive 20-year reign in the Philippines in 1986? Large scale nonviolent struggles also brought down Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1990 and played a key role in the ousting of the Shah of Iran in 1979. Mali, Kenya, Nigeria and Malawi have all experienced successful nonviolent struggles against dictatorships. The campaigns that won independence from the British in Ghana and Zambia were largely nonviolent, as was the protests that toppled Tunisian Ben Ali’s government in Tunisia and kicked off the so-called Arab Spring.

Writing on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog in 2016 Chenoweth and Stephan highlight an important historical shift: “The success rates of nonviolent resistance peaked in the 1990s, but the current decade has seen a sharp decline in the success rates of nonviolent resistance”. They suggest a few reasons for this change, including the likelihood state opponents of nonviolent campaigns may be getting smart to nonviolent strategies and tactics, and cleverly adapting their responses to minimise the movements’ challenges to the status quo.

This is certainly concerning. However, Chenoweth and Stephan highlight that though their effectiveness has waned, nonviolent campaigns are still succeeding more often than violent campaigns.

And with violent resistance turning out to be so disastrous in Libya and Syria, it is more important than ever for nonviolent action to receive the recognition it deserves.

Want to find out more? Search Swarthmore College’s extensive Global Nonviolent Action Database https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/ and read Peace News https://peacenews.info/.

My favourite books of 2017

My favourite books of 2017
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 December 2017

Published a long twenty years since her Booker Prize winning debut novel The God Of Small Things, Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s new book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton) is a sprawling epic about contemporary India – from a guesthouse for trans women in Delhi, to grassroots protest movements and the dark arts of the intelligence services. Since her initial success, Roy has turned her attention to activist politics, eloquently questioning and criticising the government and corporate elites in her own country and across the world. These concerns worm their way into the narrative, evidenced by her vivid descriptions of India’s brutal actions in Kashmir and the perilous lives of those enduring and resisting the military occupation. Though it doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights of her first book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’s ingrained left-leaning politics and its yearning friendships and romance between school friends make for an affecting literary journey.

Tom Mills’ The BBC: Myth of a Public Service (Verso) is an essential corrective to mainstream journalists and commentators blowing a gasket about fake news and alternative media. From the 1926 General Strike to the 2008 financial crisis, Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University, highlights the BBC’s long history of towing the British establishment line on key issues. The censure of the BBC’s Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg by the BBC Trust for erroneously editing a 2015 interview with Jeremy Corbyn, the BBC’s shameful lack of coverage of the UK-enabled humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and the corporation’s North Korea-style coverage of Prince Harry’s recent engagement suggest little has changed.

Somewhat amateurish in its presentation, George Paxton’s Nonviolent Resistance to the Nazis (YouCaxton) is nevertheless one of the most important books I’ve ever read. While Western political culture unquestionably repeats the idea that violent struggle against Nazi Germany was the only option, Paxton, a trustee of the Gandhi Foundation, tells the stories of those who non-violently resisted the Nazis in Europe. Even in the most authoritarian circumstances there was, it turns out, opportunities to challenge – and sometimes win small, but important, changes to – Nazi policies. A 1941 strike in France against food shortages involving 100,000 miners won more food coupons, while in Berlin in 1943 the non-Jewish wives of Jews protested in the street and stopped the threatened deportation of their husbands. Fascinating and inspiring in equal measure.

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.

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.