Non-violence: past, present, future

An informative guide to non-violent activism worldwide offers a valuable, positive resource through difficult times. It is also a tribute to the lifelong work of its co-editor, Howard Clark.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
19 December 2013

Have the non-violent protests in the Arab world, which inspired movements against autocracy and marginalisation in the region, now clearly failed? Several developments - continuing war in Syria, upheavals in Egypt, repression in Bahrain, even unrest in Tunisia - may all seem to lead to this conclusion. It is an easy step from there to argue that non-violent approaches are worthless, and to endorse the view that only violence or the threat of violence can bring positive political and social change.

But, here as elsewhere, it is important to put events into a larger - and longer-term - perspective. In this respect, a remarkable new book provides copious information of relevant experience over many years and across the whole world. The book - A Guide to Civil Resistance: A Bibliography of People Power and Nonviolent Protest, edited by April Carter, Howard Clark and Michael Randle (Green Print/Merlin Press, 2013) - is immensely valuable and topical on many levels, though I say this with a note of real sadness as Howard Clark died on 28 November 2013 though only in his early 60s.

Howard was an outstanding person - the embodiment of a scholar-activist, admired by people right across the peace movement. His thirty-five years of non-violent campaigning included working for War Resisters’ International from 1985-97 (latterly as WRI's chair). He engaged with very many areas, notably the Balkans; his book Civil Resistance in Kosovo (Pluto, 2000) is a model of analysis rooted in a deep knowledge of the complexities of the Kosovo environment and the difficulties of achieving non-violent social change. Indeed throughout his life, Howard combined a realistic understanding of limitations with a constant commitment to the need to achieve change without violence.

His many books and articles informed thousands of people, making an act of recognition particularly welcome: a fellowship at Coventry University's Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies, capped by the award in 2013 of a doctorate that cited his numerous publications. It was a privilege for me to be one of the external examiners for that award, allowing me an opportunity really to understand something of Howard's admirable work. In itself, A Guide to Civil Resistance is a very fine tribute to his commitment and the exceptional work of all three co-editors.

A public service

The book is in appearance a bibliography, though its scale and depth make this description in many ways misleading and even belittling. True, it contains a vast mine of information, sources and references, but in doing so provides a synthesis of experience of (primarily) the post-1945 period. The book goes far beyond the focus on western peace movements that students of non-violence might expect; for example, it provides an overview of all the major theories of non-violence that places them in historical perspective. A fifty-page chapter which synthesises the work of the most significant writers in the field is an illuminating survey which alone opens up a world otherwise inaccessible to most citizens.

The Guide also looks at colonial Africa, providing perspectives that are almost always forgotten in studies on independence movements, and at popular resistance in communist regimes. The latter is a hugely informative reminder of the role of very ordinary people from all walks of life in bringing about change across east-central Europe. A powerful sequel examines resistance to autocracies in post-communist countries which highlights the way that new-old elites grabbed the reins of power there, often enriching themselves immensely in the process.

The core of the book then maps resistance to authoritarian regimes across the world as well as positive moves towards multi-party democracy and initiatives that seek to protect existing advances. This covers the full span: from South Africa and many Latin American states to Greece under the colonels' regime, Salazar in Portugal, Franco in Spain and the Shah's Iran.

The delight of the book is its combination of detail and overview. It combines attention to each example of a social movement with clear information, wider context and a brief assessment of its significance. In the end, what comes through from A Guide to Civil Resistance is that the positive experience of non-violence is far greater than most realise. The book is a service to everyone - past, present and no doubt future - who works so hard to achieve non-violent social change, but also to a wider public that needs to know of this experience.

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