Why are we so ignorant about the rich history of nonviolent struggle?
by Ian Sinclair
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.