by Steve ChaseJune 20, 2017
I recently read Ben Case’s article "Beyond Violence and Nonviolence," published in ROAR Magazine on June 5, 2017. In it, Case argues that using a diversity of violent and nonviolent tactics can increase the effectiveness of movements struggling against oppression. As someone working on a forthcoming website about the strategic value of maintaining nonviolent discipline in our movements, it might surprise people that I actually agree with many of Case’s points.
He and I certainly agree that we should select tactics “based on the potential of those actions to disrupt oppressive systems, build power, and win short-term goals that can lead to long-term victories.” I think he is right that the most important distinction to be made when selecting tactics is between making strategic tactical choices (that have the highest probability of increasing movement effectiveness) and making unstrategic tactical choices (that might fulfill some activists’ romantic fantasies or transient emotional needs, but actually backfire against the movement and lower its probability of success).
Case and I also agree that most violent tactics are not helpful in increasing movement effectiveness. Case cites the groundbreaking research of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in their award-winning book Why Civil Resistance Works. As he explains, these researchers have demonstrated that predominately “nonviolent movements are twice as likely as violent ones to achieve ‘maximalist’ political goals (overthrowing a leader, ousting a foreign occupation or seceding from a territory).” He also acknowledges that violent tactics tend to “generate greater police repression” and that “mainstream tolerance for police repression,” particularly of violent protests, “is quite high.”
Case even suggests that an effective 21st century revolutionary will look more like a nonviolent civil resister than a “Maoist or Guevarist guerrilla.” As Case notes approvingly, most social change “activists today do not seriously discuss taking up arms and going to the mountains to wage guerrilla warfare.” Case also praises the academic field studying civil resistance for articulating many “user-friendly approaches for dismantling institutional targets using creative nonviolent disruption.” As he notes, “Key principles of civil resistance such as noncooperation, mass participation, polarization, and the backfiring effect are important and useful.”
Yet, after making all these solid points, Case then makes a sudden leap and asserts that there are “many reasons” to believe that today’s movements will be much more effective if they supplement their nonviolent civil resistance tactics with the frequent “use of low-level violent actions,” such as rioting, breaking bank windows, street-fighting with violent police, punching neo-Nazis, or setting cars and trash cans on fire. Unfortunately, Case does not offer any evidence to support this assertion.
He does note that the “Nonviolent and Violent Conflicts and Outcomes” (NAVCO) dataset used by Chenoweth and Stephan is not finely calibrated enough to conclusively rule out his "diversity of tactics" claim about the effectiveness of mixing nonviolent tactics with low-level violent actions. Yet, all this observation really gets you is the more reasonable claim that this one study cannot clear up all the uncertainty on this important strategic question.
There is, however, an empirical study not mentioned by Case that significantly undermines his position. Omar Wasow’s publicly available research on the 1960s Black insurgency looked closely at the different impacts on voting patterns, public opinion, and elite political discourse of:
1) the kind of low-level violent tactics advocated by Case; and
2) disciplined nonviolent civil resistance tactics.
While there is not enough space in a blog post to explain Wasow’s complex county-by-county research design, it is impressive and his findings are telling.
Wasow discovered that proximity to disciplined mass nonviolent protests kept white people focused on the issue of “civil rights” while proximity to violent protests shifted their focus to “law and order.” Nonviolent protests also “helped to grow the egalitarian coalition of white liberals, white moderates, and blacks,” but protests perceived as violent strengthened the coalition pushing a more racist and authoritarian outlook. Wasow also found that “in Presidential elections, the proximity to black-led nonviolent protests caused increased white Democratic vote share, whereas proximity to black-led violent protests caused substantially important declines and likely tipped the 1968 election from Hubert Humphrey to Richard Nixon.”
Wasow’s last comment in his research article is particularly important: “Tactics matter... and while violence in response to repression is often justifiable, this research suggests it may not be strategic.” Such evidence suggests to me that working in creative and respectful ways to foster greater nonviolent discipline within our movements is a more strategic approach than the so-called "diversity of tactics" approach advocated by Case. As even Case notes, too many people embrace such low-level violent tactics for unstrategic reasons and ignore the word “necessary” when quoting Malcolm X’s famous slogan “by any means necessary.”
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