A mural of the Quit India movement by Beohar Rammanohar Sinha.
“There are many causes that I am prepared to die for, but no causes that I am prepared to kill for.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan have written an excellent article in Foreign Affairs that is well worth reading. In it, they undertake a systematic study of resistance movements to authoritarian governments in the 20th century in an attempt to determine which methods are more successful in both succeeding and in transitioning to peaceful democracies afterwards.
To study these methods, the authors examined 323 different movements from 1900 to 2006, involving both violent and nonviolent movements that involved more than 1,000 participants for the purpose of “self-determination, the removal of an incumbent leader, or the expulsion of a foreign military occupation.”
Their conclusion was that nonviolent movements were twice as likely to succeed as violent movements, and that nonviolent movements often significantly increased the chances of a more peaceful and democratic government emerging in the aftermath.
“Contrary to conventional wisdom, no social, economic, or political structures have systematically prevented nonviolent campaigns from emerging or succeeding,” the authors write. “From strikes and protests to sit-ins and boycotts, civil resistance remains the best strategy for social and political change in the face of oppression. Movements that opt for violence often unleash terrible destruction and bloodshed, in both the short and the long term, usually without realizing the goals they set out to achieve.”
This seems counterintuitive, especially here in the United States, where advocates of violence are often regarded as “realists” or “pragmatic.” But as the authors note, there’s good reason for the success of nonviolent movements. That’s because they’re “more likely than armed struggle to attract a larger and more diverse base of participants and impose unsustainable costs on a regime.”
The authors note that three factors that successful nonviolent resistance movements have in common: “they enjoy mass participation, they produce regime defections, and they employ flexible tactics.” Nonviolent movements that failed, they note, did so because they lacked organization and good tactical thinking. But even when they failed, the authors note that those countries were four times as likely to eventually transition to democracy compared to failed violent movements.
Even when authoritarian governments respond to resistance movements with violence, nonviolent resistance still produces superior results to armed struggle. According to the authors, nearly half of the nonviolent movements succeeded in the face of government violence, compared to only 20% of the violent movements.
Nonviolent movements are also better prepared to transition to a more peaceful, democratic government because they are able to build parallel structures to the government. Here they use the example of Solidarity in Poland, which developed into “a kind of shadow government, facilitating its ability to step into a leadership role as communism crumbled.”
The superior success rate of nonviolent movements is even more impressive when you consider that such movements were pretty rare prior to the 20th century. If you want to learn to use violence well, there are books, treatises, military academies, martial arts schools, etc. But the opportunity to learn nonviolent methods of resistance to evil acts? They’re few and far between. And nonviolent methods are often harder to learn and require more discipline in order to overcome our natural tendencies to anger and fighting.
But even with that, there are plenty of examples to draw from even away from mass movements, on the scale of the individual. Two recent school shootings were stopped, not by police officers with weapons, but teachers who had the courage and compassion to reach out and talk the shooter down.
Imagine if we took a fraction of the resources we use to study violence, and used them instead to find ways to stop people from doing evil peacefully? The evidence from mass nonviolent movements shows that it’s the best way for a country to win its freedom. Perhaps we should follow that example to discover ways to build a more peaceful world on the individual level.
When he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sounded a similar theme:
“Therefore, I venture to suggest to all of you and all who hear and may eventually read these words, that the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence become immediately a subject for study and for serious experimentation in every field of human conflict.”
That’s still good advice today.