by Steve ChaseFebruary 28, 2018
In my June 2017 “Let’s Get Strategic” post, I explained my disagreement with the conclusion of Ben Case’s “Beyond Violence and Nonviolence” article, in which he promotes the idea that violence can be strategically effective for grassroots movements.
There’s a further claim in Case’s article, which I did not address previously, but which merits an additional response. He states that advocates of disciplined nonviolent civil resistance are secretly pacifists who, for PR reasons, say that they have “abandoned the moral pacifism” of religious leaders like Gandhi and King, and are now “motivated purely by the effectiveness of their approach.” Case believes that “pacifism was never fully purged” from civil resistance theory and “the foundational core of the field is still based on a theory of change constructed around the practice of spiritual nonviolence.”
There are a few pacifists who wish this was true. For example, Kevin Clements argues that civil resistance should be based on a moral commitment to pacifism, which he defines as the ethical “rejection of all physical violence.” His lament is that most people who study or use civil resistance do not do so out of a moral commitment to “principled nonviolence,” but tend to mostly think about whether civil resistance is a practical and effective way for achieving a social movement’s goals of human rights, equality, political freedom, or sustainability.
This pragmatic approach is certainly true of a researcher like Erica Chenoweth. In her description of how she came to co-write her book Why Civil Resistance Works with Maria Stephan, Chenoweth explains that she has never been attracted to pacifism, nor did she, at the outset of her investigation, think that any empirical research would ever indicate that nonviolent civil resistance could be more effective than political violence in overthrowing dictators or defeating belligerent foreign occupations. She was, in her own words, “a complete sceptic” about nonviolent action. She believed that nonviolent reformism can sometimes be effective under very favorable conditions, but she did not think it could be more effective than political violence in the more extreme or difficult cases.
As she approached her research comparing violent and nonviolent movement outcomes, Chenoweth also agreed with Case that “if effectiveness is truly the goal, then one must be open to all possibilities that might prove to be effective.” She even raised questions about whether the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), the educational foundation that funded the research, would accept the findings if they did not turn out as ICNC expected. As Chenoweth recalls:
I remember telling [co-author] Maria [Stephan] that we might find out the opposite—that violence was actually more effective—and asking her if [ICNC founder] Peter Ackerman understood that this was a real possibility. She assured me that if we discovered that civil resistance was ineffective, then he and everyone else at ICNC would accept this outcome… Maria and I agreed that if it turned out that civil resistance was not very effective, then we had better find that out sooner rather than later.
Research like hers, however, has developed an increasingly strong case that disciplined nonviolent civil resistance tends to be much more effective than either armed struggle or a mixed strategy of civil resistance with an organized violent flank. Out of people’s own practical experience and observations, the frequency and intensity of violent resistance is declining around the world and the number of nonviolent civil resistance campaigns is increasing. As long-time organizer and movement strategist George Lakey once observed: “Most pacifists do not practice nonviolent resistance, and most people who do practice nonviolent resistance are not pacifists.”
None of this suggests, however, that the majority of the non-pacifist activists and theorists of civil resistance use effectiveness as their only guide in selecting tactics. For many, if not most, there is also a strong ethical dimension at work as well. They are interested in finding paths forward that avoid scaring, hurting, maiming, or killing people. But one can be both motivated by ethical concerns and simultaneously committed to truth and impartiality in their social science work.
As Malcolm X once said, “Nonviolence is fine as long as it works.” For many organizers and activists today, the corollary is “if it works, nonviolent action is fine,” even ethically preferable. This ethical preference for effective nonviolent means seems appropriate, especially when there is solid social scientific evidence that: 1) predominantly nonviolent movements are nearly twice as effective as predominantly violent movements, and 2) the higher the level of a civil resistance movement’s nonviolent discipline, the greater its chances of success.
I personally agree with Gandhi that it is better to resist oppression with violence than not at all, and I understand people doing that when they are facing horrible conditions and severe violent repression. Yet, I also think that it is even more strategic and ethical to resist oppression with effective and disciplined civil resistance. One can be ethical and effective all at the same time. It is also very possible to have ethical concerns over the selection of tactics and not be a pacifist.
Steve Chase is a long-time activist, educator, and writer. He was an editor at South End Press for many years, the founding director of Antioch University’s master’s level activist training program in Advocacy for Social Justice and Sustainability, and is currently ICNC’s Manager of Academic Initiatives.Read More