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Readings in Nonviolence

‘Readings in Nonviolence’ features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions welcome).

Introduced by Rob Fairmichael

Why civil resistance works – The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict

By Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth In ‘International Security’ Volume 33 No.1, Summer 2008 See PDF copy

‘Does nonviolence work?’ is a question which is imbedded in the minds not only of sceptics but also of many who have made a commitment to peaceful and non-violent working – their comitment may be a principled one but they also may not be wholly convinced of the pragmatic wisdom of choosing nonviolence. This 37-page paper can set their minds at relative ease; not only is nonviolence a principled choice, it is also a pragmatic choice – it works or at least is most likely to work at a societal level.

While some of this paper is quite academic, such rigour is not necessarily a bad thing and you can, if desired, skip the logistic regressions – most of the paper is very readable. The authors, Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, state that their study aims to systematically explore ”the strategic effectiveness of violent and nonviolent campaigns in conflicts between onstate and state actors using aggregate data on major nonviolent and violent resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006........Our findings show that major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns.” (p. 8-9) – and they add a footnote that “Terrorist groups have fared much worse” plus a quote that “Max Abrahms has shown that terrorists’ success rates are extremely low, accomplishing their policy objectives only 7 percent of the time.” (p. 10-11) The violent and nonviolent campaigns analysed are not listed here.

They continue that “There are two reasons for this sucess. First, a campaign’s commitment to nonviolent methods enhances its domestic and international legitimacy and encourages more broad-based participation in the resistance, which translates into increased pressure being brought to bear on the target.......Second, whereas governments easily justify violent counterattacks against armed insurgents, regime violence against nonviolent movements is more likely to backfire against the regime...”

While they distinguish between strategic and principled nonviolence they correctly state that “the vast majority of participants in nonviolent struggles have not been devoted to principled nonviolence” (p.10) but go on to talk about the power of nonviolence; “Although nonviolent resistors eschew the threat or use of violence, the “peaceful” designation often given to nonviolent movements belies the often highly disruptive nature of organised nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance achives demands against the will of the opponent by seizing control of the conflict through widespread noncooperation and defiance” – though perhaps they could have added, as with Gene Sharp, that accommodation and conversion are possible as well as coercion.

They do also acknowledge the difficulty (p.16) of labeling a campaign as ‘nonviolent’ or ‘violent’. In good academic style they go into their emperical analysis with a number, four, of hypotheses which they list (on p.14-15). They conclude that defections (from the ruling regime) “more than quadruple the chance of campaign success” (p.20). After this analysis they go on to case studies on the East Timorese independence movement, the Philippines in 1986 with its ‘nun-violent’ revolution, and Burma which is obviously a relative failure for any kind of change movement.

Their conclusions from the case studies include “violent campaigns were largely unsuccessful in heightening the political costs of repression”, “campaigns that fail to produce loyalty shifts within the security or civilian bureaucracy are unlikely to achieve success”, and mass mobilization was “more common among the nonviolent campaigns than the violent campaigns.” (p.40-41) and “Broad-based campaigns are more likely to call into question the legitimacy of the opponent.” (p.42) They deal with the question of external support which can be useful or can also be used as a stick to beat the opposition with by the existing regime if they can make it look like the opposition are in thrall to powers abroad.

Interestingly, one of the final conclusions is that “the provision of educational materials (e.g. books, films, DVDs, and videogames) that highlight lessons learned from other historical nonviolent movements has been cited by nonviolent activists as critical to their mobilization.” So get sharing. Definitely worth a visit to the PDF copy listed above.

Copyright INNATE 2016