TFF PressInfo # 342 – The iron fist inside a velvet glove

By Jonathan Power

“1789 is an historic date but it is not an historic example”. The French Revolution, violent to its fingertips, began with the highest motives, led by the most inspired and determined of people, but descended step by step into its own self-created inferno where the revolution consumed its own children.

Violence begets violence and, as Martin Luther King said, “The means and the ends must cohere. We will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means, because the means represents the ideal in the making, and the end in process. And, ultimately, you can’t reach your good ends through evil means, because the means represents the seed and the end the tree.”

According Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, writing in the August, 2014, edition of Foreign Affairs, “Between 1900 and 2006 campaigns of nonviolent resistance against authoritarian regimes were twice as likely to succeed as violent movements. Nonviolent resistance also increased the chances that the overthrow of a dictatorship would lead to peace and democratic rule. This was true even in highly authoritarian and repressive countries, where one might expect nonviolent resistance to fail.”

Critics of nonviolence are always swift to cite cases when non-violent campaigns were counterproductive – the student protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the failure of the Arab Spring where non-violent protests were hijacked by extremists, as in Syria, or were self-sabotaged by their leaders who had no strategy for the long term, as in Egypt.

More recently in Ukraine the ferment unleashed by those protesting against the rule of President Viktor Yanukovych while achieving its aim of toppling him has been compromised by the infiltration of extreme rightists which, in turn, worked to provoke Russian military intervention in the east.

All such criticisms are right. But just as violence and war often don’t succeed – as with Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and now eastern Ukraine – so there is no guarantee that a nonviolent campaign will. But what nonviolence can promise is that the numbers of innocent people killed or wounded will be far less than when violence is used. And when successful it is easier to integrate the defeated into the new dispensation.

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Practitioners of nonviolence need have no false modesty. According to the research of Chenoweth and Stephan, even when governments have chosen to violently repress resistance movements nonviolent campaigns still succeed in achieving their goals almost half the time, whereas only 20% of violent movements have achieved their goals, because the vast majority of them were unable to produce the mass support or defections necessary to win. Even when nonviolent campaigns fail much can still be achieved.

Their research shows that countries that had experienced failed nonviolent movements were still four times as likely to achieve democracy as countries where resistance movements resorted to violence at the onset.

“Civil resistance doesn’t succeed because it melts the hearts of dictators and their secret police. It succeeds because it is more likely than armed struggle to attract a larger and more diverse base of participants and impose unsustainable costs on a regime.”

The brutal, last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had no problem in the 1960s and 70s suppressing the opposition when it was centered on Islamist and Marxist-inspired guerrilla groups. But once large numbers of oil workers, bazaar merchants and students engaged in acts of collective nonviolent resistance, including strikes, boycotts and protests the regime’s repressive apparatus became overstretched.

The economy started to fall apart. Then the US, faced with the Shah’s request for them to approve a bloody crackdown, made the decision to withdraw support even though he was considered to be a strategic ally. The Shah was forced to flee.

The two most important nonviolent movements of our era were the struggle of American blacks for their civil rights under the leadership of Martin Luther King and the rise of the shipyard workers in Poland against their communist government. It was the defining moment when communism was undermined in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

In 1980, 16,000 workers went on strike at the Gdansk shipyard. This grabbed the headlines but in fact Polish labour groups had been quietly fomenting resistance for a decade. The trade union they formed, Solidarity, morphed into a widespread civil resistance movement, gradually undermining the government’s grip.

Eventually 10 million Poles joined up. Constant strikes, demonstrations, the publishing of dissident newspapers and radical theatre performances in churches were their tools. Violence on both sides was minimal. Within a decade, in 1989, the regime agreed to semi-free elections. In 1990 Lech Walesa, the shipyard workers’ leader, was elected president.

We need to re-think how we help the fight for liberty at home and abroad. It is not guns and war that will do the trick. Rather it should be the iron fist, yes, but inside a velvet glove.

Copyright: Jonathan Power

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