Wednesday, August 16, 2017

If nonviolence is not enough then violence is even less so

"Using violence is a stupid decision." - Dr. Gene Sharp, January 30, 2012

Violent resistance usually plays to the regime's strength

Read with great interest Julio M. Shiling's essay "Cuando la no violencia es insuficiente" [When nonviolence is insufficient] published in Pulso Venezolano and how it began with Ho Chi Minh's opinion that Gandhi would have abandoned the nonviolent struggle in a week if it had been the French, instead of the British, that he had to confront in India. The second critic of nonviolence cited in the essay Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, also a man of the Left, carries out an analysis that limits the possibilities of success to a democratic polity where freedom of expression and association exist.

Ideological and theoretical objections to nonviolence 
Orthodox communists believe, as an intrinsic part of their doctrine, in class struggle and warfare as mechanisms of societal evolution. Mohandas Gandhi rejected this paradigm in favor of a nonviolent relationship between different social classes and racial groups.  The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of this new paradigm as the "beloved community."  The past century has demonstrated that class struggle and war can achieve things in the short term, but often times the new system inaugurated with great violence turns out worse than the old preexisting one. This was the case in Russia, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Ethiopia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. 

An analysis of conflicts over the past century both violent and nonviolent against a variety of different types of regimes: democratic, authoritarian and totalitarian reveals that both Ho Chi Minh and George Orwell are wrong, nonviolent campaigns have been more successful than violent campaigns.  The more repressive and brutal a regime, the more effective nonviolent resistance and the less effective violent resistance. Democratic regimes that provide spaces for freedom of expression and association  are much more resilient in dealing with and containing dissent.

Nonviolent campaigns doubly more successful then violent campaigns
University Academics Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth in their 2008 study "Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic on Nonviolent Conflict" compared the outcomes of 323 nonviolent and violent resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006. They found that major nonviolent campaigns achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with just under half that at 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns.

In his essay on the dissolution of the Soviet empire Shiling argues that, although a factor, nonviolence was of less importance than the shift from a containment policy under previous U.S. Administrations to a rollback policy under Ronald Reagan during the Cold War.  He also highlights the role of direct violent action against communist regimes in Grenada, Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistán, and El Salvador. Out of the five countries, one was a foreign invasion carried out by the United States (Grenada) while in the other four countries where indigenous movements received training and supplies to keep communists out of power (El Salvador) or force them out (Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistán) things did not go well.  Communists took power (El Salvador) regained power (Nicaragua) stayed in power (Angola) or transitioned into something worse (Afghanistan) with the Taliban which involved blow back for the United States on September 11, 2001 with the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon that claimed the lives of 3,000 Americans.

Difference between a foreign policy of nonviolent solidarity and one of appeasement 
The question that should logically arise is how did things turn out where nonviolence was the primary approach both in international and domestic politics? In Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union where the Reagan Administration along with UK's Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II,  and Helmut Kohl pursued an aggressive but predominantly nonviolent approach highlighting and demonstrating solidarity with dissidents. Russia and Belarus today are authoritarian regimes, but the rest of Eastern Europe remains, at least nominally, democratic which is a vast improvement over where they were in 1989.

Sadly the case of the Tiananmen uprising of 1989 in China provides a counterpoint where Western powers, led by the United States, had embraced the communist regime as a strategic and commercial partner. Instead of siding with the dissidents the West protested the massacre publicly but privately sided with the communist autocracy and empowered it to the point where it is an even greater threat today. Chinese dissidents bravely engaged in nonviolent resistance and shook the power centers of the Chinese Communist regime, but sadly a policy of appeasement by Western countries reinforced and protected the dictatorship.

In his essay Schilling left out the violent revolution in Romania that is now viewed as a false dawn because the violence was perpetrated by factions within the communist elite that remained in power afterwards. The drive for change in Eastern Europe began with Poland and the nonviolent Solidarity labor movement that achieved real and lasting change. The question that arises is why was Romania different than other countries in Eastern Europe? The answer, in part, is that U.S. policy was different.

Ronald Reagan entered office on January 20, 1981 and eleven months later on December 13, 1981 the communist regime in Poland declared martial law and was cracking down on the Solidarity movement. 10,000 people were rounded up and about 100 died during martial law. Reagan in his Christmas Address on December 23, 1981 denounced the crackdown and outlined economic sanctions against Poland while demanding that the human rights of the Polish people be respected.

This was in marked contrast to the relationship with the regime in Romania. Out of all the countries of Eastern Europe, the United States had the closest diplomatic relations with Romania. This was due to the Nixon administration seeking to exploit differences between Romania and the Soviet Union. Nicolae Ceasescu denounced the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and continued diplomatic relations with Israel maintaining an independent foreign policy from the Soviet Union. This would go on to be a bipartisan affair with Jimmy Carter hosting the Romanian dictator in Washington, DC in 1978. However in the end the Romanian regime was one of the most brutal in Eastern Europe and ended in a bloody and violent mess. Another negative legacy of détente.

There is a vast difference between a policy based in nonviolence and solidarity as was the Reagan Administration's policy, for the most part, in Eastern Europe with victims of repression and one of appeasement with the oppressor as was U.S. policy in Romania and China. Although on the surface they may appear similar, they are profoundly different.

Setting the record straight on nonviolence guru Gene Sharp
Shiling provides an overview of some of the important works of Gene Sharp and sums up his theory of power as follows: "Sharp's theory rests on the premise that the essence of power lies primarily in the subjects' obedience to political leadership. If the subjects do not obey the political power, argues the American theoretician, the leaders would not have power and consequently, the dictatorship collapses or withers." However this idea is not Gene Sharp's but belongs to Étienne de La Boétie, a French Judge, who elaborated on this in his 1552 work "The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude."

Gene Sharp's work is influenced by de La Boétie but is a lot more developed. Furthermore the case he makes is on how to self-liberate without depending on outside powers, that are often not reliable and driven by their own narrow self interests. Sharp's 2009 book available online: "Self-Liberation A Guide to Strategic Planning  for Action to End a Dictatorship  or Other Oppression" offers a clearer and more developed insight to his theoretical approach.  Critics of nonviolent resistance view it as an unarmed struggle when contrasted with violent resistance. Gene Sharp in 1990 at the National Conference on Nonviolent Sanctions and Defense in Boston contested that mistaken view:
"I say nonviolent struggle is armed struggle. And we have to take back that term from those advocates of violence who seek to justify with pretty words that kind of combat. Only with this type of struggle one fights with psychological weapons, social weapons, economic weapons and political weapons. And that this is ultimately more powerful against oppression, injustice and tyranny then violence."
Nonviolence theoretician Gene Sharp also recognizes that there is a moral dimension that cannot be ignored without dire consequences (as the recent drive to normalize relations with the Castro regime in Cuba demonstrated): "It is unreasonable to aim for a 'win- win' resolution. Brutal dictators and perpetrators of genocide do not deserve to win anything."

Charlotte Israel protested at Rosenstrasse to get her Jewish husband (1943)
German wives forced Hitler to return their Jewish husbands from death camps in 1943
It has been demonstrated that indigenous resistance movements confronting a brutal dictatorship have a much higher probability of success if they are nonviolent. Shiling mentions the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, but fails to mention how in 1943 on Rosenstrasse street German wives married to Jewish men, who had been taken to concentration camps, organized a series of strikes and protests that forced the Nazis to return their husbands back from the death camps. Those men survived the Holocaust thanks to their wives courageous and nonviolent action.  The disturbing question that arises: What would have happened if instead of the violent Antifa movement, that fought the Nazis in street battles throughout the 1930s that escalated violence, opponents of the Nazis had followed Gandhi's advice at the time and resisted them nonviolently?

Although agree with Shiling that international support can help I do not believe that its absence relegates a nonviolent movement to "inspiring and epic heroic acts, but incapable of producing significant political changes on their own." Ironically that is an excellent description of what happens to a violent resistance movement without substantial outside logistical and material support. A nonviolent resistance that does an analysis of the situation on the ground, analyses the pillars of support for the regime and develops a strategy for undermining those pillars can accomplish a lot but it requires analysis, discipline, stubbornness and persistence.

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