Non-violence vs. Violence

Posted August 5th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

There’s been some interesting criticism of my piece in The Boston Globe on Sunday about the increasing calls for violence among revolutionaries in Egypt. The best-known scholars of nonviolence, whose research I cite in my column, take exception to my analysis and raise some valid objections to the way I framed some of the other research. Other writers have gone further, accusing me of advocating violence. Briefly: the question is not whether nonviolent revolt is preferable – of course it is, and when successful it leads to more liberal, stable political transitions than violent revolt. The pertinent question is, in what situations are nonviolent revolts doomed to fail? And against recalcitrant regimes that will use all possible force to suppress dissent, what avenues are open to the revolutionary? In short, what works against the most oppressive and violent regimes? This inquiry is more topical than ever today, as revolts have failed, are fizzling, or are headed toward full-scale war in countries including China, Iran, Syria, Yemen and Libya. It’s not a question of averages (what works most of the time?), but one of specifics – what works against the most brutal states?

Scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan have studied more than a century of uprisings and found that nonviolence is twice as likely to succeed as violence. In a post on Rational Insurgent, Chenoweth says I misread the literature. She’s right that I somewhat sloppily described the work of Robert Pape and Ivan Arreguín-Toft; their research argues that violence works and makes strategic sense, but doesn’t explicitly compare it to nonviolence. I know that Chenowith and Stephan’s work followed the research of Pape and Arreguín-Toft, but the Globe essay makes it sound the other way around. Chenowith goes on to write:

Contrary to Cambanis’s argument, the historical record reveals rather dramatically that nonviolent resistance is strategically superior, and, in the end, often leads to much more democratic and stable societies than violent insurgency. Although Egyptians may be rightly frustrated with the pace and direction of the transition, they need only look to other recent cases—such as Libya or Yemen—to see the risks of using violence to attempt to improve their strategic positions. Our research indicates that if Egyptians resort to violence, their chances of success will drop by about half, the risk of civil war will steeply rise, and the chances for democracy in the foreseeable future will be considerably reduced.

Other writers take up a related form of argument. Tom H. Hastings writes that nonviolence is more likely to overturn a repressive government than violent revolt, which might well replace one tyranny with another. I think he has a good point, and I personally don’t think a violent revolt in Egypt is more likely than a peaceful one to lead to a liberal state; nowhere in my Globe piece do I make this contention. Hastings also nastily suggests that I must be a fan of mass killings in the name of revolution, a pointless and unfounded slander which merits no response but says something about the low standards to which people hold themselves in public writing these days.

Eric Stoner asks whether The Boston Globe “would prefer violence in Egypt.” Speaking for myself, again, I would not. But I’m a journalist, not an ideologue, so I’m asking questions like what actually works, and what is actually happening. If frustrated Egyptians start taking out hits on police officers, it won’t be because of my column. And if Egypt’s admirable nonviolent revolutionaries manage finally to push the ruling military out of power and install an elected, accountable, civilian government in its place, without widespread violence, it won’t be because of our essays. Although it will be an outcome to cheer.

The genesis of my Globe essay was entirely organic. In more than a dozen interviews, Egyptian activists told me without my even raising the subject that they were considering adopting violent resistance (mostly vigilante killings of police officers who had killed civilians) because non-violent protest hadn’t accomplished as much as they would like. This widespread organic sentiment prompted me to explore the idea as a story. None of the strategic organizers of the protests in Tahrir Square advocated a turn to violence, although several of them told me that they thought some limited violence might prompt further concessions from the military junta presently ruling Egypt.

The phenomenon of arguing for violence led me to history and political science. Historically, had successful revolutions employed violence? And what had political scientists found?

The record, of course, is mixed. The French Revolution became increasingly violent and radical, and of course, led to a backlash and an illiberal century. The Russian Revolution began comparatively peacefully, toppled the czar, and then was overtaken by a violent Bolshevik coup that created a brutal police state. Eastern Europe in the late twentieth century offered up a cast of “Velvet Revolutions,” in which violent states were quickly overturned by peaceful protest.

A few scholars I contacted offered very thoughtful comments that were sadly edited out of the published piece for length.

Mark Kramer, director of the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, said that proponents of violence often misunderstood the legacy of the Russian Revolution.

First of all, the real Russian Revolution was in March 1917, and it was peaceful.  The Tsar’s regime collapsed in the face of escalating protests and mutinies in the army, and a new, democratic government (the provisional government headed by Aleksandr Kerensky) came to power.  What happened in November 1917, when the Bolsheviks seized power, was really a coup d’etat and not a revolution. … The real revolution (in March 1917 with the overthrow of the Tsar’s regime) was a good case in which peaceful protests worked.  The Bolsheviks’ subsequent willingness to rely on mass violent terror to seize power was a disaster for Russia.  I have no doubt at all that Russia would be a much better country nowadays if it had not been forced to endure seven decades of rule under one of the most violent dictatorships that ever existed.

About the research of Chenoweth and Stephan he says:

I find their argument very intriguing, but one clear problem is that their database unavoidably omits countless non-violent resistance campaigns that never begin (because they are deterred) or that are crushed at a very early stage before they become widely known.   Hence, the database is biased toward successful cases of non-violence, leaving ample room for debate about the authors’ conclusions.  Moreover, even if Stephan and Chenoweth are correct in their aggregate analysis of non-violent resistance campaigns unadjusted for size, the existence of crucial outliers — China in June 1989, Burma in 2007, Zimbabwe in 2005 and 2008, and Iran in June-July 2009 — raises further questions about the validity of their argument.  Suffice to say that more research will be needed.

For now, the question of whether the use of violence by a protest movement is likely to contribute to the ouster of a regime remains open.  The downfall of regimes in numerous countries after non-violent protests over the past 35 years, most recently this year in the Arab world, is extremely important to bear in mind, but in many instances, including China, Uzbekistan, Burma, Zimbabwe, Iran, and Belarus among others, autocratic governments have been willing to rely on ruthless violence to crush mass non-violent protests and prevent further challenges.

On the other hand, the inefficacy of non-violence in many cases does not necessarily mean that the use of violence would have been more conducive to success.  Clearly in some cases the use of violence has simply made things worse.  The Chechens’ resumption of violent attacks in August 1999, rather than proceeding with non-violent negotiations to settle the final status of Chechnya as called for under the August 1996 Khasavyurt accords, ended what was arguably the best chance Chechnya has ever had (or will ever have) to achieve independence.  The Chechen guerrillas’ decision to resort to violence proved disastrous.

Personally, I don’t advocate violence, torture, or extrajudicial killing, whether by states or insurgents. It’s still worth asking though – and the research of Chenowith and Stephan in no way ends the debate – whether nonviolent protest works against a regime truly determined to stay in power at all costs (cf. China, Iran, Syria, and Libya).

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