How can we have a nonviolent revolution?

IssueApril - May 2023
Comment by Milan Rai

This note is addressed to the many people who are gathering in London in April, brought together by Extinction Rebellion (XR), hoping to contribute to positive action to tackle climate change.

In promoting this event, XR suggested that: ‘Gathering peacefully in such large numbers at the nation’s seat of power will create a positive, irreversible, societal tipping point.’ They referred to ‘the power of people power’, as shown by the success of nonviolent mass demonstrations in the Philippines in 1986, which overthrew the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and in several other places.

Peace News thinks it was a mistake to use this kind of language in relation to the April demonstrations; it was promising too much (see PN 2664).

Let’s put that aside.

The question we’re all interested in is: how could there possibly be a nonviolent revolution in Britain?

One place to look to start answering this question is Toward a Living Revolution: A five-stage framework for creating radical social change by longtime US radical activist and trainer, George Lakey.

George points out that, when there is a mass nonviolent uprising or ‘civilian insurrection’, there are often limits to what can be achieved. ‘The chief limitation is that there is a strong tendency for the society, although shaken, to fall back into place roughly as before’ without the worst excesses of the previous system.

“The convulsion by the masses creates a power vacuum but cannot by itself fill that vacuum”

George gives the example of El Salvador in 1944, when a general strike led by students overthrew the dictator, Maximiliano Hernández Martínez. The government fell ‘but the resulting power vacuum was quickly filled by a rearrangement of the articulate forces (the oligarchy, the army) over the heads of the people who had worked and sacrificed for change.’

In the Philippines, to take an example given by XR, rich landowners continued to hold power after Marcos fell. Yes, there were democratic elections, but the lives of most poor people did not change – because the economic structures of power had not changed.

George writes: ‘The convulsion by the masses creates a power vacuum but cannot by itself fill that vacuum.... Only a strong and united people’s organization with a revolutionary program can provide the new life which becomes that new society.’

Five stages

George says that, if you want an actual revolution, as opposed to a more superficial change, you need a deeper process. His five-stage process looks like this:

  • Cultural preparation. One of the questions under this heading is: ‘What relation do you see at this point between short-term goals, medium-term goals, and the vision (long-range goals)?’
  • Organisation-building. Here are some of George’s questions on this topic: ‘What is the role of alternative institutions in building the revolutionary movement? Of rank-and-file movements in labor? Of radical caucuses in the professions? Of action groups which develop campaigns? Of support groups?’
  • Propaganda of the deed. This is about confrontation and nonviolent conflict. One of the questions in this section is: ‘What support do people need to get through this stage successfully, so they will not back down, become intimidated, or get isolated?’;
  • Mass non-co-operation. George asks: ‘Whose cooperation is especially critical?’ He points out that in the Iranian Revolution of 1978 – 1979, it was the oil workers who were most important to the regime of the shah. George also asks: ‘What is the role of the movement (for example alternative economic institutions) in providing services in the middle of economic and social dislocation?’
  • Parallel institutions. Here the revolutionary movement creates new ways of meeting the legitimate functions of the old order, such as providing transportation or growing and distributing food. George says: ‘The key is the fence-sitting part of the population, which did not actively participate in Stage IV [mass non-co-operation] but watched intently and now needs to decide whether to give the revolution the benefit of the doubt.’

Where we are

Today, in Britain, we are a long, long way from mass non-co-operation with the powers that be – like a general strike of the kind that brought down Maximiliano Hernández Martínez – let alone setting up parallel institutions that can take care of the basic functions of society.

US thinker Noam Chomsky once said that, if there were some kind of revolutionary change in the US today, it would probably be a sharp shift to the Right, because not even the beginnings of an alternative society have been built so far.

Chomsky also pointed out that most countries are small; their societies can easily be squashed by their neighbours. He suggested that if a Western revolution was going to have a hope of surviving, it would have to be on the scale of the US or the whole of Western Europe (meaning that Europeans would need a multinational, multi-language, multicultural revolutionary movement).

Chomsky suggests that talking to most people about revolutionary change – the abolition of the wage system, for instance, or doing away with capitalism or the state – ‘is like talking to them about Mars’. These things are ‘just too remote from the options that people actually have for them to even pay any attention to that.’

“What support do people need, so they will not back down, become intimidated, or get isolated?”

You can’t raise these topics just by talking: ‘Those are things that people have to live; aspirations and understanding have to grow out of experience and struggle and conflict.’

Meanwhile, there is much that can be done within the existing framework, including, we must hope, preventing climate breakdown.

Back in the 1970s, Chomsky suggested that, if we want a mass revolutionary movement, we’re going to have to first build a mass reformist movement devoted to ‘badly needed reforms, anti-imperialist and anti-militarist, concerned with guaranteeing minimal standards of health, income, education, industrial safety and conditions of work, and overcoming urban decay and rural misery.’

This unified programme of action, and this kind of movement, is still some way off – both in the UK and the US.