The Arab Spring has made even more urgent the question of whether nonviolence can work against repressive regimes. The events of this year—breathtaking in their momentousness—have been maddeningly complicated. In two countries (Egypt and Tunisia), mainly nonviolent mass movements have succeeded in toppling autocracies. In another (Libya), the uprising had to arm itself—and be aided by outside intervention—before it ousted the country’s dictator. In yet others (such as Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain), the rebellions—varying combinations of peaceful protest and violence—have been stymied for now, at least.
So, what works better, nonviolent resistance or violent revolution? A new book by two scholars, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, attempts to answer this once and for all.
They analyzed an astonishing 323 campaigns over the past century. The book is an expansion of a paper that the authors wrote for the journal International Security in 2008 that caught the attention of many, since it was the first definitive study of its kind. (I cited the article in my book on Islam and nonviolence.)
“The most striking finding is that between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts,” the authors write in their book.
Nonviolent resistance doesn’t have to manifest itself as people coming out in the streets in massive numbers. Rather, it “is just as likely to take the form of stay-aways, sit-ins, occupations, economic boycotts, and so forth,” the authors write. In their survey, Chenoweth and Stephan found that “the average nonviolent campaign has over 200,000 members—about 150,000 more active participants than the average violent campaign.” Of the twenty-five largest campaigns, twenty have been nonviolent, and of these a full 70 percent have been successes.
“When large numbers of people in key sectors of society stop obeying and engage in prolonged acts of social, political, and economic disruption, they may fundamentally alter the relationship between ruler and ruled,” they write. “If mass participation is associated with campaign success, then nonviolent campaigns have an advantage over violent ones.”
The reasons they give are many and convincing.
For one thing, “the moral, physical, informational, and commitment barriers to participation are much lower for nonviolent resistance than for violent insurgency,” they write. The low propensity of people to take part in an armed uprising is not surprising, since “actively joining a violent campaign may require physical skills such as agility and endurance, willingness to train, ability to handle and use weapons, and often isolation from society at large.”
For another, “loyalty shifts involving the opponent’s erstwhile supporters, including the security forces,” are more likely to occur during nonviolent upheavals, the authors argue.
“There is less room for negotiation, compromise, and power-sharing when regime members fear that even small losses of power will translate into rolling heads,” they write. “Campaigns that divide the adversary from its key pillars of support are in a better position to succeed. Nonviolent campaigns have a strategic advantage in this regard.”
International sanctions become part of the support system here, much more likely to be imposed in support of a nonviolent movement and much less available when revolutionaries are blowing up people. “A nonviolent campaign is 70 percent likelier to receive diplomatic support through sanctions than a violent campaign,” they calculate.
The advantages of nonviolence extend even after the change of regime, Chenoweth and Stephan contend, with groups that have come to power nonviolently being much more likely to respect democracy and civil liberties than violent uprisings.
“Victorious violent insurgencies often feel compelled to reestablish the monopoly on the use of force and therefore seek to purge any remaining elements of the state,” they write. “Because the insurgents used violent methods to succeed in gaining power, there will be fewer inhibitions against the use of violent methods to maintain power. Indeed, the capacity to do so may only increase.”
In some sense, the authors have subjected to statistical analysis the theories of Gene Sharp, an influential Boston-based proponent of nonviolent change, someone they cite a number of times. In his work, Sharp stresses the practical utility of nonviolence, deemphasizing the moral aspects of it. He asserts that for Gandhi, nonviolence was more of a pragmatic tool than a matter of principle, painting a picture that’s at variance with much of Gandhian scholarship.
Gandhi’s use of nonviolence “was pure pragmatism,” Sharp told me in an interview in 2006. “At the end of his life, he defends himself. He was accused of holding on to nonviolent means because of his religious belief. He says no. He says, ‘I presented this as a political means of action, and that’s what I’m saying today. And it’s a misrepresentation to say that I presented this as a purely religious approach.’ He was very upset about that.”
But what if nonviolence were shown not to work very well? Should the world abandon it as a strategy? You can argue on principle that what Chenoweth and Stephan prove is irrelevant. When people are weighing options about what route to take in battling oppression and injustice, however, surely they are thinking about the likely outcome. Chenoweth and Stephan’s findings will help them choose the right path.
The book has the shortcomings of a work derived from an academic paper. The first many chapters of the book are written in academese, and a reader’s appreciation of this portion will be directly correlated with his or her tolerance for this style. The book also includes a plethora of graphs and charts, many involving high-level statistical analysis, and many impenetrable sentences. (“A ‘negative radical flank effect,’ or spoiler effect, occurs when another party’s violence decreases the leverage of a challenge group,” goes one.)
The second half of the book is much more readable. It consists of detailed studies of four mass protests: the 1979 anti-Shah revolt in Iran, the First Intifada in Palestine, the movement in the Philippines that overthrew Marcos in 1986, and the failed pro-democracy uprising in Burma. Chenoweth and Stephan trace the genesis of these rebellions, their unfolding, the tactics used, and their eventual outcomes. There are interesting tidbits here. For instance, a Shah government official called Ayatollah Khomeini’s audio tapes “stronger than fighter planes.” And “over 97 percent of campaign activities reported by the Israeli Defense Force [in the First Intifada] were nonviolent.”
Here, Chenoweth and Stephan also attempt to answer difficult questions.
For instance, why did a mostly nonviolent mass movement in Iran give rise to a repressive fundamentalist regime? (The centering of the protests on the charismatic figure of Khomeini was the cause, they say.)
Why were the Palestinians unable to sustain a largely nonviolent uprising in the First Intifada? (The lack of strategic coherence and internal divisions within the movement doomed it, they assert.)
And, heartbreakingly, why has the Burmese opposition so far been unable to topple the ruling junta? (The failure to build large decentralized networks of protesters and to attract significant defections from the ruling clique are the reasons, they reply.)
Remarkably, the authors manage in the epilogue to incorporate the happenings in Egypt and Tunisia, which serve to further validate their point. “If these last several months have taught us anything, it is that nonviolent resistance can be a near-unstoppable force for change in our world, even in the most unlikely circumstances,” they state. Plus, the fact that Egypt has had a nonviolent transition means that it has a 30 percent possibility of becoming a functioning democracy, as compared with the “much closer to zero” chance it would have had if there had been a violent insurrection.
All of us dedicated to peaceful protest as a way to change the world can take heart from this book.
Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive, is the author of the new book “ ‘Islam’ Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today” (Praeger).
Follow Amitabh Pal @amitpal on Twitter