MUNPlanet: What is nonviolent struggle and why is it important?
Maciej Bartkowski: Nonviolent struggle is a conflict in which at least one side does not use violence, and deploys a repertoire of nonviolent methods such as strikes, protests, demonstrations, non-cooperation, or for example, civil disobedience – so-called disruptive methods.
But civil resistance also includes an arsenal of creative methods such as building alternative parallel institutions. Sometimes those institutions can be underground, or built above ground, legal, semi-legal or illegal, and they are built in different segments or aspects of social, cultural or political life of the society where the struggle takes place.
The most important feature of the nonviolent struggle is that civilians mobilize and wage their resistance without resorting to violence, while deploying various kinds of disruptive and creative methods of nonviolent resistance.
MUNPlanet: The title of your edited book is Recovering Nonviolent History, and one of the assumptions is that nonviolent struggle was forgotten or ignored in the past. Why is that the case?
Maciej Bartkowski: Nonviolent conflicts and nonviolent movements are often forgotten in the annals of history, and national narratives. There are various reasons for that. For example, in the book, Recovering Nonviolent History, we attempt to recover the histories of nonviolent movements that fought for independence during the rise of nation-states in the 19th and 20th centuries. Usually, the rise of nation-states is associated with violence, namely, violent nationalism, the violent break-up of empires, independent wars, and violent resistance against colonial powers, etc. Other scholars would look at structural elements that contributed to the rise of nation-states: urbanization, migration, national bureaucracies or, universal conscription. Still others would look at the role of political elites or military leaders that were visible to the public as they stood at the vanguard of political change, more often than not, with arms.
In the book, we look neither at violent aspects of the political change nor at its structural equivalence or elites. Instead, to understanding how nations struggled for their statehood we consider the role and impact of ordinary people who made the change happen. It is the equivalent of what the late historian Howard Zinn called “a people’s history.” Often, ordinary people organized themselves, and their intuitive or strategic commitment to and use of nonviolent resistance contributed to a number of the states gaining independence and nations being formed. The book uncovers how people effectively fought foreign subjugation, without resorting to violence, and the consequences of their struggles. These stories are oftentimes forgotten because ordinary people were not seen as power holders and their actions were not newsworthy or important enough to find their way into history books. Also, civil resistance that sometimes took the form of small acts of resistance like flags hanging from balconies, wearing national cloths or refusing to buy foreign goods was often effectively overshadowed by spectacular and seemingly more dramatic aspects of violent resistance. The latter would be noticed and described by historians, and the press and thus featured more prominently in national histories than the acts of civil resistance.
"The book uncovers how people effectively fought foreign subjugation, without resorting to violence, and the consequences of their struggles. These stories are oftentimes forgotten because ordinary people were not seen as power holders and their actions were not newsworthy or important enough to find their way into history books ."
"...the power of civil resistance does not come from material resources as much as it comes from people’s participation, skills of those who join the movement and their tactical and strategic ingenuity."
MUNPlanet: What can you tell us about the practice of nonviolent resistance these days?
Maciej Bartkowski: We have seen the rise of nonviolent movements or the use of nonviolent resistance methods by different societies and communities around the world. If we, for example, measure the number of nonviolent movements in the so-called maximalist struggles, (struggles against dictatorships, or self-determination), we clearly see their significant increase in the last few decades. In the second half of the 20th century, every 10 years, there were, on average, 12-13 nonviolent people’s struggles directed against brutal states. Only in the first decade of the 21st century did I count more than 50 such nonviolent struggles - almost a fivefold increase.
The growing phenomenon of nonviolent resistance represents the example of learning on the part of the society about how people can struggle for their rights without the use of violence. Oftentimes the success of a nonviolent resistance movement would inspire people elsewhere to use the same methods. There might also be greater knowledge of nonviolent resistance strategies that is being circulated among population these days than earlier. For example, in Thailand, you cannot organize a gathering of five or more people without government permission otherwise you will be arrested. Students get in groups of four instead. They sit or stand and in their hands you see books, among others, George Orwell's 1984 or Animal Farm but also books about nonviolent actions and civil resistance that are translated into a local language. People are learning about how to organize more effectively from available literature and conversations with others. They begin understanding what makes nonviolent resistance such a potent and effective force even against brutal and materially powerful opponent.
MUNPlanet: Nonviolent resistance is often perceived as the ‘weapon of the weak.’ Where does its strength come from?
Maciej Bartkowski: It might be correct to say that civil resistance is used by the side that is seemingly weaker than the opponent it challenges. But this weakness is defined purely in a material sense. However, the power of civil resistance does not come from material resources as much as it comes from people’s participation, skills of those who join the movement and their tactical and strategic ingenuity. This ingenuity in civil resistance is represented by the shrewd understanding of the battlefield that, in turn, informs the choice and deployment of appropriate methods of nonviolent action.
In the academically acclaimed book Why the Civil Resistance Works Stephan and Chenoweth offer counter-intuitive findings about effectiveness of nonviolent resistance versus violent campaigns against most brutal regimes. The authors show that nonviolent resistance is more than twice as effective as violent resistance in reaching its political goals against repressive states. Those of us, in the field of civil resistance studies, want to explain why exactly civil resistance movements are such a potent weapon in challenging violent regimes as compared to violent resistance.
MUNPlanet: What is the greatest power of nonviolent resistance?
Bartkowski: If we were to distill the range of explanations about the effectiveness of civil resistance to one element - it would be participation. The greater the number of people that join the movement, the higher the chances of that movement achieving success. Of course, it is much easier to mobilize people to join the movement when the movement remains nonviolent. People from all walks of life can join it: youth, old people, rich, poor, women, men, children, physically able but also physically weaker or disabled. They can all participate in one way or the other in nonviolent actions. For example, movement decides to engage in boycott. You do not have to go to the street or to face the police in an outdoor rally. You can stay at home and refraining from buying goods that the campaign asks you not to purchase. Or to boycott censored news on your TV at home you are asked to take a walk in the park at the news hour. Anyone can undertake this low-risk resistance. In that sense, the power of nonviolent movement comes precisely from its nonviolent methods that encourage greater participation than it would have been otherwise. In turn, violent resistance requires a specific type of person that is physically able to take up arms and fight in the jungle, or in the mountains. Not many people are ready and able to engage in a military campaign in contrast to nonviolent resistance.
In the context of participation Erica Chenoweth, a leading scholar in the field of civil resistance, brought up the number of 3.5 percent. She says that in her statistical modeling of civil resistance beginning from 1900 there was no nonviolent movement that ever failed if it reached the level of 3.5% of the population that actively joined the struggle.
It does not mean that the remaining part of the population is not important. Usually, majority of people would at least tacitly support and sympathize with the movement. Now, 3.5 percent may look quite low, but in China that means 60 million people that need to be mobilized and actively participate in strikes, boycotts, and non-cooperation actions throughout a sustained period of time. That is a significant number. Plus, millions of others that would at least sympathize with the movement, if not directly participating in its actions.
Another important element in explaining power of nonviolent movements is backfire. More precisely, repression against nonviolent movements has greater chances of backfiring, leading to the outcomes different from what was intended when violence was used. Instead of subduing the resistance violence against unarmed people causes greater sympathy for the movement, both domestically and internationally and may also increase participation in the movement. It is not that this always happens. Take, for example, the Tiananmen Square where violence was used against the protestors and suppressed the movement without causing much of a domestic backfire. The question is how a movement communicates about repression against it to a larger public and how skillful it is in circumventing government propaganda to spread uncensored news and information about violence to the domestic and international audience.
Finally, by remaining nonviolent activists increase their chances of facilitating defections or loyalty shifts from the groups that earlier supported the status quo or the regime. It is much easier to reach out to these people if movement remains nonviolent rather than tries shoot its way. If that happens, the response from the government, as Syria shows, is an indiscriminate use of force equally against violent groups as well as civilians and activists who are all branded by the government terrorists.
"The shift from violent to nonviolent resistance is very important because it eventually decreases the chances for civil war. Moreover, if at least one side uses nonviolent resistance this significantly reduces the number of people killed in the conflict. What we observe is that major atrocities are committed during civil wars not during the nonviolent struggles. Activists and demonstrators are killed by brutal regimes but the death toll in a nonviolent conflict is significantly lower than the death toll in the situation when both sides use violence ."
MUNPlanet: Can we speak of the limits of nonviolent protest as being the other side of the coin of this phenomenon?Maciej Bartkowski: [...] Nonviolent resistance more often than not takes place in conditions that are unfavorable for independent organizing and mobilization. If conditions determined actions we could hardly speak of any political dissent, including nonviolent movements or civil resistance. In practices, activists launch campaigns not because regime allows them to but because they are able to overcome adversarial conditions with new strategies and tactics. And this is driven by people’s innovative planning and discipline. On a very basic level, nonviolent resistance is propelled by the minds of the people. And a human mind has limitless potential. [...]
"In nonviolent resistance, one usually does not have many resources, but as the saying goes, the lack of resources makes people more resourceful... So, the limits of civil resistance are just that - skills and creativity."
MUNPlanet:The revolutions in the Arab world (Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen) have witnessed the power of the people. How can this experience help them in democracy and state building?
MUNPlanet: And what about the role of the international community, and the UN in particular?
Maciej Bartkowski: [...] Right now, there is no singular normative framework that would encourage states and civil societies in those states to help nonviolent movements. What we have is the norm Responsibility to Protect (R2P) that in practice has been deployed in the midst of violent conflicts often after nonviolent movements have been already hijacked by radical violent elements. [...] There is no equivalent norm in international relations to Responsibility to Protect that could be invoked to assist ongoing nonviolent resistance movements. Therefore, some voices are heard advocating the necessity to develop an explicit international norm that international community could refer to in order to mobilize governments and their societies to assist nonviolent movements. Such an international norm could also play a role in encouraging resisters to stay nonviolent and make it more difficult for the armed opposition groups to hijack the resistance. [...]
Next time, Maciej talks on the Arab Spring, nonviolent struggle and civil wars, the role of transnational actors and the UN, situation in Ukraine , Gandhi, the role of the youth in nonviolent struggles, and more. Stay tuned.
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