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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Number 277: March 2020

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

Nonviolent success: The efficacy of nonviolence

Nonviolence is sometimes thought of as a soft and ineffective option. The idea that nonviolence is ‘soft’ in any way can perhaps be fairly easily dispelled by examples where it has been used in very repressive and extenuating circumstances. But the efficacy or effectiveness of nonviolence is another matter. Given the myths of redemptive violence, and the common practice of both states and many non-state actors in jumping in to utilise violence, it might seem that violence is more effective than nonviolence, irrespective of any moral issues about choosing one or the other.

However this is not necessarily so as the report featured here clearly illustrates. It is nonviolence that wins the test of effectiveness in struggles for justice and liberation. This study is “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict” by Maria J Stephan and Erica Chenoweth which appeared in International Security, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Summer 2008), pp. 7–44. It is a modern classic study which we quote from and comment on in this piece. It should also be stated that there is much detail in this thorough study which a review article like this cannot possibly cover.

At the start, the authors proclaim their mission: “Extant literature provides explanations as to why nonviolent campaigns are effective means of resistance. Little of the literature, however, comprehensively analyzes all known observations of nonviolent and violent insurgencies as analogous resistance types. This study aims to fill this gap by systematically exploring the strategic effectiveness of violent and nonviolent campaigns in conflicts between nonstate and state actors using aggregate data on major nonviolent and violent resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006.” (page 8) That is a pretty good time range to consider; it is difficult to say, “Oh, your focus period is too narrow”, given that this includes periods both pre- and post- both World Wars, the period of the Cold War, and the modern post-Cold War era. Studying 323 violent and nonviolent campaigns in this period is also a broad sample number.

They nail their conclusions very early on: “Our findings show that major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns. There are two reasons for this success. 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. Recognition of the challenge group’s grievances can translate into greater internal and external support for that group and alienation of the target regime, undermining the regime’s main sources of political, economic, and even military power.

Second, whereas governments easily justify violent counterattacks against armed insurgents, regime violence against nonviolent movements is more likely to backfire against the regime. Potentially sympathetic publics perceive violent militants as having maximalist or extremist goals beyond accommodation, but they perceive nonviolent resistance groups as less extreme, thereby enhancing their appeal and facilitating the extraction of concessions through bargaining.

Our findings challenge the conventional wisdom that violent resistance against conventionally superior adversaries is the most effective way for resistance groups to achieve policy goals. Instead, we assert that nonviolent resistance is a forceful alternative to political violence that can pose effective challenges to democratic and nondemocratic opponents, and at times can do so more effectively than violent resistance.” (page 8 - 9) So this really could not be clearer; nonviolent campaigns are successful in around twice as many cases as violent ones in the cases they studied. It seems incredible that so many people remain wedded to the idea of liberating violence. The facetious ‘golden rule’ is that those who have the gold make the rules; the wisdom of taking up armed struggle against a state enemy who is far better armed, equipped and resourced is another point of entering a contest against a force which is is geared up exactly for this – you are likely to be playing on their ‘home ground’.

They also make it clear that they are talking about nonviolence as a strategic means of struggle, not principled violence in terms of rejecting violence per se on moral grounds. Thus their analysis is wider, and more comprehensive, that those who reject methodologies of violence in all circumstances. So it is a question of practice rather than ideology in relation to this study. They define what they mean by nonviolent resistance (pages 9-10) and also make clear that “Nonviolent struggle takes place outside traditional political channels, making it distinct from other nonviolent political processes such as lobbying, electioneering, and legislating.” And they state “Nonviolent resistance achieves demands against the will of the opponent by seizing control of the conflict through widespread noncooperation and defiance.”

They deal with how nonviolent resistance can be more effective in winning over regime supporters and functionaries for different reasons including that they are not trained in dealing with nonviolent resistance and less prepared to use violence themselves when there has been no violence from the resistance. Loyalty to the regime by its supporters is likely to be heightened in the face of violent resistance so nonviolent resistance makes a changeover in loyalty more possible.

The authors adopted four hypotheses in relation to their study (they make conclusions regarding these later on):

  1. The willingness of the regime to use violence will increase the likelihood for success among nonviolent campaigns, but disadvantage violent campaigns.
  2. Nonviolent resistance has a relative advantage over violent resistance in producing loyalty shifts within security forces.
  3. International sanctions and overt state support for the campaign will advantage nonviolent campaigns over violent campaigns.
  4. External state support for the target regime will disadvantage both violent and nonviolent campaigns.

They also explain their reasoning in making judgements, e.g. “Labeling one campaign as “nonviolent” and another as “violent” is difficult. In many cases, both nonviolent and violent campaigns exist simultaneously among different competing groups. Alternatively, some groups use both nonviolent and violent methods of resistance over the course of their existence, as with the African National Congress in South Africa. Characterizing a campaign as nonviolent or violent simplifies a complex constellation of resistance methods.” (page 16) They explain their judgements on ‘success’, ‘limited success’, or ‘failure’. They also took into account whether “violent and nonviolent struggles should be more effective against democratic targets than authoritarian targets.”

Their study of the cases concludes that “in the face of regime crackdowns, nonviolent campaigns are more than six times likelier to achieve full success than violent campaigns that also faced regime repression. Repressive regimes are also about twelve times likelier to grant limited concessions to nonviolent campaigns than to violent campaigns.” This supports hypothesis 1. They also conclude “defections more than quadruple the chances of campaign success”. (page 20).

Perhaps surprisingly however their study concludes that “although campaigns that receive external state support are more than three times likelier to succeed against a repressive opponent, international sanctions have no effect on the outcomes of the campaigns.”

In case studies, they examine in some detail three cases where both nonviolent and violent resistance was used by campaigns in Southeast Asia: the Philippines, Burma, and East Timor. Their conclusions include that “in all three cases, violent campaigns were largely unsuccessful in heightening the political costs of repression”, that “campaigns that fail to produce loyalty shifts within the security or civilian bureaucracy are unlikely to achieve success”, and that “Mass mobilization—particularly mobilization where participation is broad based and the campaign is not dependent on a single leader—occurred in both cases of campaign success.” (pages 40-41)

They go on to conclude that “Mobilization may be the critical determinant of success, given that a widespread, cross-cutting, and decentralized campaign may be more effective in raising the political costs of repression because of its operational resilience, mass appeal, and anonymity. Our findings also suggest that media coverage is a crucial means of causing backfire, as others have argued.”

This is a very thorough study with a well defined and thought out methodology. Every struggle, every campaign, is unique but this wide ranging study, in both time and place, is as well placed to make generalised conclusions as any. Of course this study may not cover smaller campaigns on many different issues of the kind ‘we’ may be more likely to be engaged in; however this study indicates the general efficacy of nonviolence, and in these smaller campaigns we can still learn much from nonviolent theory and study of nonviolent struggles.

Copyright INNATE 2019