When nonviolent action is the last resort

Against a repressive government, nonviolent action can often be more effective than violence. A new book surveys how the switch from armed to nonviolent resistance can occur. Book review.

Brian Martin
27 May 2015
Brigades of Zapatistas reconstruct school destroyed by paramilitary groups. Demotix/ Debora Poo Soto. All rights reserved.

Brigades of Zapatistas reconstruct school destroyed by paramilitary groups. Demotix/ Debora Poo Soto. All rights reserved.Imagine that you live in a country with a repressive government, such as South Africa under apartheid or Burma under the generals. You are part of a resistance movement, seeking to overthrow the government or to obtain independence for your oppressed people. What is the best way to go about it? Diplomatic efforts, education, protest, noncooperation or armed struggle?

Research shows that a movement using primarily nonviolent action — methods such as rallies, strikes, boycotts and alternative government — is more likely to be effective than armed struggle. So you choose to join a nonviolent movement. So far so good. But there’s a complication. There’s already an active armed movement with the same goals as you, and you think this movement’s violent acts are hurting the resistance. The government calls them ‘terrorists’ and uses their violence as a pretext for arrests, torture, killing and removal of freedoms. Your nonviolent movement is paying part of the price. So you set yourself a task. You want to convince members of the armed opposition to switch to a strategy built around nonviolent action. How do you go about it?

If you are academically inclined, you should immediately consult a new book edited by Véronique Dudouet titled Civil Resistance and Conflict Transformation (Routledge, 2015). The term ‘civil resistance’ means nonviolent action and ‘conflict transformation’ means changing the nature of the conflict from one form to another. The subtitle is more revealing: Transitions from armed to nonviolent struggle.

Dudouet has found authors to write on eight prominent contemporary cases in which movements have switched from armed to nonviolent methods: Western Sahara, West Papua, Palestine, South Africa, Chiapas, Colombia, Egypt and Nepal. Few of these stories are known to the wider public. Perhaps only the struggles in Palestine and South Africa are familiar through the mass media, and even in these cases the transition from armed to nonviolent methods is little known. So here is a valuable compendium of insights about a crucially important process that has escaped the notice of scholars and members of the public alike.

The first important insight is that nonviolent action can be a method of choice for resistance struggles. The usual assumption until now has been that armed struggle is a last resort, to be undertaken when other methods don’t work, or when the regime is so repressive that nonviolent action can’t possibly be successful. Throw this assumption out the window! A replacement assumption is that there is no such thing as a last resort, but instead that different approaches need to be examined on their merits in particular circumstances. Sometimes, indeed often, armed struggle fails and movements gain by shifting to nonviolent struggle. No doubt there are cases in which movements can benefit by shifting to conventional politics; they would be the topic for a different book.

The second insight from Dudouet’s book is that transitions from armed to nonviolent struggle are nearly always complex and messy. It’s possible to imagine a simple process in which activists sit down and say, “Our approach isn’t working. Let’s switch to one more likely to be effective.” Actually, a couple of the cases studies start something like this. In Egypt, the leaders of the Islamic Group (IG) decided to change their methods. However, they didn’t say this was because armed struggle wasn’t working. They actually provided sophisticated theological justifications. Furthermore, a movement doesn’t suddenly change its approach on the say-so of leaders. IG leaders embarked on a systematic process of talking to the rank and file, explaining and justifying their decision and eventually persuading most movement members.

However, this was just one of several paths to nonviolent struggle. In Mexico, the Zapatistas grew out of an armed movement and fully expected that when they launched the rebellion in Chiapas on 1 January 1994, people across the country would rise up and overthrow the Mexican government. Of course it didn’t happen. The Zapatistas received great support from within Chiapas and also, unexpectedly, from sympathisers throughout the world. Within a matter of days, pressures from the base — the people in Chiapas — pushed the Zapatistas to change to a nonviolent strategy: they retained their arms but did not use them.

What is striking in this case is the pragmatism of the Zapatistas: seeing the response of their local and international constituency, and the lack of a country-wide insurgency, they promptly jettisoned their beliefs about the necessity of armed struggle, grounded in Marxism-Leninism, and adopted beliefs grounded in nonviolent action and local empowerment.

As Guiomar Rovira Sancho, author of the chapter on the Zapatistas, puts it:

The Zapatista uprising encountered immense support, which gave rise to an extensive solidarity network. It was evident that the armed strategy put all civil allies at risk and that, at the military level, the correlation of forces, once the moment of surprise was over, was totally negative for the EZLN. Their only way to survive was to take advantage of the support coming from civil society and to continue their struggle through negotiation and political means. (p. 144)

Each case in Civil Resistance and Conflict Transformation involves multiple players, a range of influences and varying strategies. In order to make some sense of this potentially confusing diversity, Dudouet asks each contributor to examine factors relevant to understanding the transition. At the level of the movement pushing for social change, two factors are the role of the leadership and the negotiations and struggles within the movement itself. At the level of society, factors include pressures from allies, the possibility of building coalitions, learning from campaigns by other groups, and competition with other movements. Then there are factors at the level of the country, such as state repression and inducement, and international factors, such as allies, emulation and acquisition of skills.

Each of the contributors followed this framework, with the result that the book as a whole has an exemplary level of coherence. If you are looking for an understanding of the transition dynamics in a particular country, such as West Papua or Nepal, you can turn to the relevant chapter. If you are looking to understand the transition process more generally, Dudouet’s introduction and conclusion serve as admirable guides.

In some cases, the actions of western governments have served to undermine transitions to unarmed resistance. The US government, for example, continued to classify groups in Egypt and Western Sahara as terrorist many years after they had rejected armed struggle. Dudouet, in drawing some conclusions, notes that policy-makers should better recognise the possibility of transitions and support them.

This, however, assumes that western governments actually prefer opposition movements to be nonviolent. If nonviolent movements are more effective, perhaps some governments intuitively prefer to provoke violence because this plays into the government’s hands, justifying its own superior violence and strengthening its grip on power. Although in some cases, most prominently South Africa, western governments supported a push for change, governments were often the last to join the campaign.

Perhaps in the future, when many more cases have been studied and frameworks for understanding transitions have been refined, there will be a simple guide on the vital topic of movements switching from armed to nonviolent strategies.

For now, Civil Resistance and Conflict Transformation is the essential source. It shows that transforming conflicts towards nonviolent struggles is usually a complex and challenging process. Most importantly, it is possible.

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