Making a Nonviolent Revolution: Review of Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know

Certain historical episodes of nonviolent resistance to injustice are famous: the Indian struggle for independence; the American civil rights movement; and the Arab Spring uprisings come to mind. However, many people who are aware of such episodes are not familiar either with the larger history of nonviolent resistance or with how such resistance can be used most effectively. For those wishing to learn more about nonviolent resistance, Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), by Erica Chenoweth, is a good introduction.

Chenoweth is a political scientist at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard who has written extensively over the past decade about how nonviolent civil resistance is more effective than violence in overcoming injustice. This latest book provides a clear, popular overview of the topic, presented in the form of answers to possible questions about nonviolent resistance. Advocates for peace, justice, and life will find the book a valuable guide to why and how nonviolent methods of resistance can succeed.

Changing the Power Balance within a Society

The book defines “civil resistance” as a “method of active conflict in which unarmed people use a variety of coordinated, noninstitutional methods—strikes, protests, demonstrations, boycotts, alternative institution-building—to promote change without harming or threatening to harm an opponent.”[1] Such resistance differs both from violent rebellion and from activism that works purely within official institutions, such as campaigning for candidates in an election. Indeed, as noted, civil resistance may involve creating parallel political or economic institutions as alternatives to the official or mainstream ones within a society.

Civil resistance campaigns seek to overturn some unjust status quo, whether a repressive regime, a colonial occupation, or a social injustice such as racial segregation. Civil resistance works to achieve such goals by exerting enough pressure to get people and groups who support the unjust status quo—the military, business leaders, religious or other influential institutions—to shift their support to the resistance campaign. This shift in support may take the form of actively helping the resistance or of simply not working against them: security forces, for example, might refuse to use violence against resistance members.

These loyalty shifts don’t require those in power to agree that the current situation is unjust, merely to recognize that their interests now lie in siding with the resistance. For example, economic resistance techniques such as strikes and boycotts can create enough economic pressure to make business leaders support the resistance campaign’s goals.

Achieving such a crucial loyalty shift generally requires that the resistance campaign has a large, diverse membership; uses diverse resistance tactics; and remains disciplined and resilient even when they encounter state repression. Chenoweth emphasizes that successful resistance campaigns don’t rely solely on protests or other public demonstrations. Less confrontational methods, such as boycotts or staying at home rather than going to work or school, can exert pressure in ways less vulnerable to repression.

Another point Chenoweth frequently repeats (with an urgency that seems born of frustration) is that successful civil resistance campaigns require a high degree of organization and long, careful planning and preparation. A loosely organized movement that takes to the streets without a clear strategy is less likely to succeed, she argues.

However, a successful civil resistance campaign doesn’t require a single charismatic leader, such as a Gandhi. Relying on such leaders makes a campaign vulnerable to collapse should the leader be imprisoned or killed.

Chenoweth cites a variety of quantitative studies, many of which she conducted with collaborators, to support her claims about civil resistance, including civil resistance’s superiority to violence. Of 627 campaigns that occurred between 1900 and 2019 and that aimed to overthrow governments or create new nation-states, over 50% of the nonviolent campaigns succeeded within a year of the campaigns’ point of greatest popular participation. In contrast, only about 26% of violent campaigns during this period succeeded.

She also cites a 2014 study that examined 46 mass killings between 1989 and 2011. The study concluded that campaigns can succeed even in the face of violent government repression of nonviolent protests, provided the campaign is well organized. Also, another study cited notably concludes that nonviolent campaigns generally suffer far fewer deaths than armed rebellions do.

Chenoweth offers plausible arguments for why nonviolent resistance campaigns tend to be more successful than violent ones. Nonviolent campaigns attract larger, more diverse followings because they are less dangerous, don’t require people to overcome scruples about using violence, and are open to people not suitable for military service. Nonviolent campaigns also earn more sympathy from the general population (Chenoweth cites a variety of opinion surveys from various countries on this point). Last, nonviolent campaigns make defections by state security forces more likely, while violent rebellions make such forces more likely to close ranks.

Chenoweth also addresses the hard cases of resistance to genocidal or otherwise extremely violent regimes. She offers a blunt, sobering assessment: “genocidal or totalitarian regimes…are difficult to confront with any kind of resistance, violent or not… [N]onviolent resistance does not always work, even when many people are using it together,” but “taking up violence may be even more disastrous.”[2] 

Problems and Limitations

Although Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know contains much that will be useful to activists, including those who defend life against assisted suicide, abortion, and other threats, the book doesn’t contain such a wide-ranging philosophy of respect for life. Chenoweth writes sympathetically of public suicide by self-immolation, questionably regarding such protest as “nonviolent.”[3] The book’s few mentions of pro-life activism are generally negative, with Chenoweth suggesting that such activism might be an example of how nonviolent resistance can sometimes be immoral.

Moreover, Chenoweth’s argument for nonviolent resistance is essentially pragmatic—nonviolence is preferable simply because it is more effective—and she largely refrains from condemning violence on moral grounds. This attitude will likely be disappointing to pacifist, and many non-pacifist, defenders of life and peace.

Civil Resistance also fails to address some crucial questions about nonviolent civil resistance. The book’s focus is various struggles within states, in which the government being challenged is either some homegrown regime or a more or less established colonial regime. What is not addressed is how to struggle against aggressive foreign states that have not yet established control of another state. Granting that nonviolent civil resistance is more effective than violent resistance in challenging an established regime, would such nonviolent resistance also be more effective than violent resistance in stopping an invasion by an outside state? The answer may well be “Yes,” but the book doesn’t address the question.

Another largely unaddressed question is how to deal with nonviolent civil resistance that is used for bad ends. While one might not categorize pro-life activism this way, certainly scenarios in which civil resistance is used to thwart or disrupt just laws or policies are easy to imagine. The January 6, 2021, Capitol riot was hardly nonviolent, but purely nonviolent resistance could have similarly disrupted the conduct or ratification of an election. How should governments and activists respond to harmful civil resistance? How do such cases fit into a larger theory of civil resistance? (Chenoweth makes a few attempts to talk about this issue, but they are under-developed.)

Conclusion

Despite such limitations, Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know is a solid introductory guide to civil resistance’s methods and potential. Activists should read it, ponder it, seek out other works on the topic (the book contains a list of suggested resources), and decide how best to employ nonviolent resistance in their own work.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.

Notes

[1] Erica Chenoweth, Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021 [NOOK edition]), 28.

[2] Ibid., 156, 157.

[3] Ibid., 82.

© 2021 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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