This ICNC Academic Webinar was presented on Thursday, March 19, 2015 by Barry L. Gan, Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Nonviolence at St. Bonaventure University.
Watch the webinar below:
1. Introduction of the Speaker: 00:32- 02:00
2. Presentation: 02:04 – 23:45
3. Questions and Answers: 24:26 – 50:41
The concept of civil resistance presumes the notion of a large-scale struggle as a means to initiate a sustained political change. These struggles must be multilayered, in that they should not aim primarily to disrupt an adversary’s business but rather to transform a society as a whole. Additionally, they should be multidimensional, consisting of direct as well as constructive nonviolent actions. But the typical actions by which civil resistance has been practiced in recent years, most notably in the Arab Spring, have been aimed at power at the top, an approach that ignores a key principle of nonviolent action-that power resides in the masses. They seem to have neglected that the emotions of people who sit on the fence, who are neither with the power structure nor opposed to it, play a major role in power shifts.
Ultimately, a change merely in power at the top means no real change in the institutional structures that oppress people in the first place. Meaningful change requires a longer-term approach directed at changing the mind-sets of the masses of people and at changing institutions, not necessarily the officials in those institutions. In the end, it is a continued development of new understandings of power, wielded from the bottom up, developed democratically, practiced over time, understood by many, that will change an oppressive culture.
Further Participant Questions
Questions not addressed during the webinar recording itself.
Participant’s Question: The presentation alluded to the idea that change should take the form of what Gene Sharp called “conversion,” which is a force that reverses the adversary’s views using moral persuasion. However, scholars of civil resistance generally agree that this type of mechanism of change (conversion) has been marginal to the success of nonviolent resistance. In other words, it is an ideal that everyone would like to aspire to, but it is not a practical instrument to bring about change in the real world of popular uprisings. This contradicts some of the main points of your presentation which has to do with bringing the opponent to your side by moral example. Could you comment on this seeming contradiction and effectiveness of moral persuasion versus economic and social disruption in undermining brutal dictatorships?
Barry L. Gan: The presentation did indeed allude to the concept of conversion, but by conversion I did not mean necessarily the conversion of one’s adversaries. More important is the conversion of the masses of people at the bottom of the pyramid who initially believe that they have no stake in the struggle. It is nonviolence and the suffering that is imposed on the grievance group that wins over, that converts, the masses of people who sit on the fence. Leaders are not likely to be converted to their opponents’ points of views. I agree. But masses of people who are initially indifferent are much more likely to be converted by observing nonviolent activists than by observing violent ones. Furthermore, to the extent that nonviolent activists are seen as disruptive rather than constructive in their engagement, they are less likely to convert those who are initially indifferent, those who sit on the fence, those who are neither opponents nor collaborators.
Participant’s Question: What is the boundary between development and resistance as you have defined it? Those in the development community sometimes criticize actors using civil resistance as being disruptive, thus discouraging the use of extra-constitutional organizing. Your arguments seem to align themselves with those held by the people from the developmental community that emphasize the importance of dialogue and negotiations over nonviolent direct actions in bringing about change. The issue is that no dictators have been toppled because of simple dialogue and negotiations without a real people power movement – often in the form of contentious actions –that stood behind them. Resistance in that sense seems to be a positive feature of nonviolent actions and is the very element that distinguishes nonviolent organizing from processes such as economic development. Dictators love to talk about the latter to stress the necessity for stability and peace that guarantee their rule. I would like to hear your perspective on this in the light of some parts of your presentation that had a critical view on civil resistance.
Barry L. Gan: Major political change is not an either/or proposition. It’s not a matter of civil resistance versus development. More importantly, civil resistance should not be the aim of those seeking political change. Political change should be the aim. And civil resistance is but one tool, and not even always a necessary tool. Stephen Zunes documented much positive political change in three countries in the webinar that followed this one. And none of the political change that he documented involved massive disruption and resistance to bring down a dictator. Au contraire. See the response to Question 1 above: to the extent that those who sit on the fence see efforts for major political change merely as reactionary resistance instead of positive development, they are less likely to get off the fence, less likely to add to the power of a movement, which might best not be called a resistance movement but an alternative movement.
Participant’s Question: Among scholars who study civil resistance, this term is used to describe a large variety of actions other than demonstrations and protests. In your presentation, however, you criticized it saying that it is not necessary to bring about a successful outcome for a movement. Instead of defining civil resistance with such a narrow scope (e.g. disruption, obstruction), shouldn’t the criticism be directed toward those that rely upon physical actions in the street, rather than those that advocate and practice civil resistance in its entirety (for example, a landless people’s movement in Brazil or for that matter, a number of anti-communist movements in Central Europe)?
Barry L. Gan: I have no issue with widening the concept of civil resistance, but I hesitate to call all forms of opposition to existing policies as resistance, a needlessly belligerent term. A constructive programme can be construed as resistance, and indeed it is likely to be construed as resistance and thus crushed if those who pursue the constructive programme call it resistance. But if it is simply called a constructive programme, a new way of doing things, then it is less likely (1) to be targeted by an oppressive regime in its early stages (2) more likely to succeed in its later stages, and (4) less likely to attract the sorts of people who enjoy antagonizing, and (4) more likely to attract the kinds of people who want a constructive alternative. Similarly, I take issue with the use of the term obstructive, just as I have some issue with the term resistance. In a sense, the term civil resistance or at least the term civil obstruction is almost—I say almost—an oxymoron. Obstruction for obstruction’s sake, resistance for resistance’s sake, are ultimately counterproductive to building a power base. One must always be open to dialogue, which need not cede one’s growing power. The resistance must be a resistance of conscience, not something aimed at harming another. If it is aimed at harming another, then it’s not nonviolent.
Participant’s Question: One might say that two different types of self-reliance exist. The first kind could be called “egoistic” or “selfish” self-reliance, in which people are indirectly in cahoots with a ruling government or their community’s adversary for their own enrichment and well-being. They value stability and economic prosperity over systemic change and are thus aligned with those who want to preserve status quo. The other kind- “selfless self-reliance” – is more similar to what Gandhi advocated: communitywide self-reliance. This type of reliance involves thousands or millions of local actors who work to develop parallel instutions, ruling structures, and/or other capacities so that they can function outside of the boundaries set for the rest of society. How does one encourage the use of community/selfless self-reliance while simultaneously discouraging egoistic self-reliance?
Barry L. Gan: This is a good question, and I’m not sure I have a good answer for it. All I can say is that (1) it may not be an either/or proposition when it comes down to actual practice. That is, one may find both sorts of people engaged in self-reliant activities, various motives and aims in any population. And (2) the power of example will prevail unless so much power is aligned against it.
Participant’s Question: What if self reliance is not possible in that sense? Take for instance Palestine or South Africa where if you look at the progression of the nonviolent movements self-reliance was sadly never an option as water sources, electricity was nationalized by repressive regimes they fought against. With Gandhi it was a lot easier to become self-sufficient as it was very localised whereas on a macro level to change an entire system of racism it is in that sense harder to do. What is your view on this?
Barry L. Gan: It is not my place to counsel Palestinians, who have suffered since the inception of the State of Israel, on being patient. Their struggle is a long one, to be sure, and many have been born and died during the course of that struggle. The same holds true for South Africa. However, we can look back at South Africa and see that, in the end, nonviolent action prevailed. And in the end, I am confident that nonviolent action could prevail in Israel/Palestine. Until recently, the Palestinians have had a difficult time publicizing their nonviolence, and, as in Burma, the nonviolent movement has not been helped by activists who engage in violence. The violence has been most counterproductive to an earlier coming to terms between the parties.
Participant’s Question: I am originally from Tajikistan but I live here in the USA. What would be your advice to those people who live outside but still want to see their parents, friends, people in free and fair society?
Barry L. Gan: First, what do your parents, friends, and others in Tajikistan want? Do they want to leave, or do they want to stay? If they want to leave, you know what to do since you have left. If they want to stay, then the answers are the same as in the presentation. Your parents, friends, and relatives should work to build alternatives that initially do not threaten the powers that be. Develop power that makes the leaders irrelevant. Heed the advice of Srdja Popovic, one of the Otpor leaders and the author of “Blueprint For Revolution.” I quote him at length in one chapter in my own book Violence and Nonviolence: An Introduction. He speaks of the difficulties facing Syria shortly after war erupted there. His advice was sage: boycotts, especially economic boycotts not active violent struggle, are a very effective tool against repression and a better option than violence against an oppressive regime. But from the outside, you might work to develop micro-loans, not just for friends and family but a much larger program that builds power in the base. Work to develop exchange programs—student exchange programs, professor exchange programs. Work to foster as much interaction as possible between people from home with those in other countries. Educate others like myself, who are generally ignorant of the situation in Tajikistan, about Tajikistan. Do this on a one-to-one basis. Do this on a larger scale. Writing letters to representatives in Congress is less effective than writing op-ed pieces, which they are more likely to read and which will reach many more people.
Barry L. Gan is a Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Nonviolence at St. Bonaventure University. He is also an ICNC Academic Advisor and the author of Violence and Nonviolence: An Introduction. He is co-editor with Robert L. Holmes of a leading anthology on nonviolence, Nonviolence in Theory and Practice, now in a third edition; and he is editor of The Acorn: Journal of the Gandhi-King Society. For two years he served as program committee chair of the oldest and largest interfaith peace group in the United States, the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
He has taught at St. Bonaventure University for the past thirty years since receiving his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in philosophy from the University of Rochester in 1981 and 1984, respectively. Prior to that he taught high school and junior high school English for six years. He is newly married to Miaoli Zhang, a trainer in microscopic photography for Olympus of China. He has a daughter who is a writer and works at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and he has a son who has recently been graduated from college. To read more about Dr. Gan, click here.
- Albert Einstein Institution (homepage)
- “Collective Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Electric Book).” New Delhi, Publications Division Government of India, 1999, 98 volumes. Available online
- Gan, Barry. Violence and Nonviolence: An Introduction. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.
- Global Nonviolent Action Database (homepage)
- Holmes, Robert L. and Gan, Barry L. Nonviolence in Theory and Practice. 3rd edition. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, 2012.
- Lakey, George. “Strategizing for a Living Revolution.” History is a Weapon, n.d. Available online
- Moyer, Bill. “The Movement Action Plan: A Strategic Framework Describing the Eight Stages of Successful Social Movements.” History is a Weapon, Spring 1987. Available online