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On Taking Nonviolence Seriously

February 8, 2012

Daniel Serwer has a post at the Atlantic arguing for the use of nonviolent means in the Syrian conflict:

The point is to demonstrate wide participation, mock the authorities, and deprive them of their capacity to generate fear. When I studied Arabic in Damascus a few years ago, I asked an experienced agitator friend about the efficacy of the security forces. She said they were lousy. “What keeps everyone in line?” I asked. “Fear,” she replied. If the oppositions resorts to violence, it helps the authorities: by responding with sometimes random violence, they hope to re-instill fear.

It has stirred up mentions of unicorns and rainbows and that sort of thing from the many who discount this as a pipe dream. I understand the urge to dismiss nonviolence in the face of the brutality of the Syrian regime. I certainly don’t know what is best for the people of Syria in this conflict, and I’m not sure I would have the courage to urge non-violence to people who are being attacked by their own government daily, but I would urge anyone dismissing nonviolent means as completely absurd to read a little Gene Sharp (whose work Mr. Serwer references in his piece) first.

Early in his seminal work From Dictatorship to Democracy (pdf), Sharp makes a key point about the why for nonviolent means, that  “By placing confidence in violent means, one has chosen the very type of struggle with which the oppressors nearly always have superiority.”

It is not a casual use of nonviolence that Sharp encourages; he urges very calculated use of nonviolent tactics as part of a thorough plan. He puts great emphasis on the importance of strategic planning in revolution. He is quite clear that it is not enough to simply to use nonviolent means randomly. Carefully planned use of non-violence has much more potential for effectiveness than any willy-nilly application of various means.

Very careful thought based on a realistic assessment of the situation and the capabilities of the populace is required in order to select effective ways to achieve freedom under such circumstances.

If one wishes to accomplish something, it is wise to plan how to do it. The more important the goal, or the graver the consequences of failure, the more important planning becomes. Strategic planning increases the likelihood that all available resources will be mobilized and employed most effectively. This is especially true for a democratic movement – which has limited material resources and whose supporters will be in danger – that is trying to bring down a powerful dictatorship. In contrast, the dictatorship usually will have access to vast material resources, organizational strength, and ability to perpetrate brutalities.

“To plan a strategy” here means to calculate a course of action that will make it more likely to get from the present to the desired future situation. In terms of this discussion, it means from a dictatorship to a future democratic system. A plan to achieve that objective will usually consist of a phased series of campaigns and  other organized activities designed to strengthen the oppressed population and society and to weaken the dictatorship. Note here that the objective is not simply to destroy the current dictatorship but to emplace a democratic system. A grand strategy that limits its objective to merely destroying the incumbent dictatorship runs a great risk of producing another tyrant.*

Agree with Sharp’s views or not, he has done an enormous amount of work on nonviolent means of revolution, and has been very influential in various movements around the world. (If you have the opportunity to see the recent documentary about him, How to Start a Revolution, I definitely recommend doing so). He frames it in such a way that invites you to consider nonviolence as a serious approach, not a refuge of weakness, and makes a strong case for at least taking it seriously as an option.



Sharp’s warnings about planning for the aftermath have a great deal of resonance, too, when considering the current situation in Egypt, to name one.

While spontaneity has some positive qualities, it has often had disadvantages. Frequently, the democratic resisters have not anticipated the brutalities of the dictatorship, so that they suffered gravely and the resistance has collapsed. At times the lack of planning by democrats has left crucial decisions to chance, with disastrous results. Even when the oppressive system was brought down, lack of planning on how to handle the transition to a democratic system has contributed to the emergence of a new dictatorship.


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