by Tom HastingsOctober 24, 2023
“Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable—the art of the next best.”
― Otto von Bismarck
With devastating violent conflicts emerging internationally in the space of three years, it is difficult—perhaps to some, even tone deaf or naïve—to write about nonviolent resistance. Readers are, understandably, less attentive right now to other forms of conflict happening in the world. Violence and war will surely but sadly endure in this human journey we are all on. This does not mean that nonviolent conflict is any less effective, as an alternative form of political struggle, at realizing political change for the better (instead of just destruction). We cannot give up on human agency.
So, while we cannot and should not ignore violent conflict in our world today, we must be reminded that violence does not have the monopoly on political change. In this blog post, I try to bring readers back, just for a moment, to the realm of nonviolent conflict and its broad spectrum of dynamics in political change. And I’d like to do that by discussing precisely, nonviolent movement success and failure.
On any movement’s path to achieving a goal, there are setbacks and losses along the way. Sometimes we activists focus on the setbacks and losses more than our progress, lessons learned or victories.
For example, in the 1980s in Wisconsin (USA), my friend Walter played a crucial role in forcing a Rio Tinto mining operation to greatly limit its scope of activities and adopt far cleaner practices. After years of campaign losses, Walter engaged in a nonviolent direct-action at the construction site, and it ultimately became the coup de grâce for Rio Tinto’s immense original project. All those small previous losses left Walter numb to my congratulations, incapable of feeling the ultimate big win.
But after the empirical findings of Chenoweth and Stephan showing nonviolent struggle is twice as effective as armed resistance, we need to recognize that each of the 323 cases they examined were most often a series of losses before the final victory. A data set seems sterile when you look at it, but when you understand that the 30-plus year struggle to evict British rule from India was only an n of 1 out of those 323, you understand that movements will lose, lose, lose—until they win. Gandhi was so correct when he said, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win."
What did the ignoring, mockery and repression feel like? It felt like losing—until success was achieved, after any sort of breakthrough had seemed unattainable for so long.
You want to end poverty. You want to end the military occupation of your ancestral lands. What is the game plan?
Over the decades of practicing, learning about and teaching nonviolent strategy, I've arrived at an exercise for my students that culminates in my most popular class, “Nonviolence in History and Campaign Design.”
What you achieve through this process is both tangible progress as well as a winning reputation. You are not only much more likely to see your numbers increase in your next campaign, you are building momentum toward your ideal win.
Historical luminaries in the field of strategic nonviolent action—Gandhi, King, et al.—operated like this.
Since the map is not the territory, or, as Alan Watts put it, the menu is not the meal, we must acknowledge that illimitable variables can affect a campaign’s outcome. But there are fundamental principles that apply to almost all campaign design—ways to prepare that might increase the chances of multiple sequenced successes. These fundamentals can help make nonviolent resistance “the art of the next best” in our society.
There is a great difference between expressing outrage and being consumed by rage. The public knows that and will make their decisions to support a movement or not accordingly. You need a media team who can craft messages that resonate with whatever public is important to you. You also need to inoculate your campaign from the alienating publicity that would inevitably come if some participants throw things at cops or break windows. If you cannot create a sympathy gap in your favor, your chances of success dim quickly.
In political struggle, our means are linked to our ends. It is part of being human. Because actions speak louder than words, what we are struggling to achieve is inseparable (for outsiders) from how we struggle.
Being efficient and decisive requires maintaining two major points:
These early decisions are the only two that should remain steadfast for the duration of the campaign. Stray from this, and your campaign is plagued by incessant debates and dust-ups that sap the energy and will of the leaders and participants alike. We’ve seen it all too many times.
Realizing “the art of the best” means building a society based on unity and mutual understanding, which can’t happen when leadership and decision-making are faulty.
The late Peter Ackerman always argued that while conditions are important, skills still outweigh them. Since we've seen so many cases of supposedly "powerless" people deposing brutal “powerful” ones, I think civil resistance truly is the art of the possible. Our competencies make it attainable and our commitment makes our results the next “best” of our societies.
War rages and can appear to snuff out nonviolent power. Yet there are historical cases of civil society intervening to prevent war or even halt a war in progress (the women of Liberia, for instance). Nonviolent action is always an option, even when it appears irrelevant to the "powerful" directing the carnage of war.
Tom H. Hastings, long-time ICNC collaborator, is Coördinator of Conflict Resolution BA/BS degree programs and certificates at Portland State University (USA), PeaceVoice Senior Editor and on occasion an expert witness for the defense of civil resisters in court. He has written several books and many articles about nonviolence and other peace and conflict topics. He is a two-time Plowshares resister and a founding member of two Catholic Worker communities.Read More