People Power: a strategic political force

IssueNovember 2009
Feature by Michael Randle

Two new books have appeared that are essential reading for anyone interested in understanding how collective nonviolent action – civil resistance – can operate at a strategic level to further social and political emancipation.

The contributions in Howard Clark’s collection, People Power: Unarmed Resistance and Global Solidarity, look at the varied forms transnational solidarity can take – and the pitfalls it has to avoid.

In Civil Resistance and Power Politics: the Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, editors Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash provide analytical case studies of 18 campaigns ranging from Gandhi’s civil resistance in India to the campaign led by Buddhist monks against the repressive military regime in Burma in 2007.

Both books raise challenging questions about how, and in what circumstances, civil resistance can be effective.

The Clark book, based on a conference at Coventry University in 2006, has four sections, devoted respectively to case studies of unarmed struggle in the period 2000-2008; nonviolent citizens’ intervention across borders; the shared identities, interests and beliefs that provide the bases of solidarity; and controversies relating to transnational action, including the outside funding and training of opposition movements. The perspective here is an activist one, but with no loss of rigour in the analysis.

The Roberts and Garton Ash book also has its genesis in an international conference, this one at Oxford University in 2007. The orientation is more academic, but the book is eminently readable, and the methodology it employs in analysing cases is strikingly similar to that in the Clark book.

There is an overlap too in the contributors. Clark himself has an insightful chapter on Kosovo in the Oxford book, and April Carter also contributes to both volumes, her chapter in the Oxford book being an impressive overview of the literature on civil resistance. The best contributions in both books take account, in analysing civil resistance campaigns, of broad structural factors, such as regime vulnerability due to economic crises, military defeats, or the international environment, and the strategy and inventiveness of movements.

Gandhi’s role
Thus Judith Brown, while acknowledging Gandhi’s immense importance in the Indian independence movement, argues that his campaigns of non-cooperation did not succeed in making India ungovernable and identifies Britain’s weakness at the end of the Second World War, and the anti-imperialist sentiment of its allies, as the crucial factors that forced the British government to negotiate a rapid withdrawal.

However, Brown also cites a letter from the British secretary of state, Pethwick Lawrence, to the viceroy of India, Lord Wavell, in 1946 stating that: “We could not contemplate anything in the nature of a re-conquest and retention of India by force against nationally organised opposition”. And it was the Indian Congress campaigns led by Gandhi over several decades that had mobilised that national opposition.

The meaning of success and failure is discussed by most of the contributors in a nuanced way, acknowledging the frequent ambiguity of the outcomes, the difficulties of identifying cause and effect, and the unintended consequences that can follow even from even the most successful campaigns.

Doug McAdam’s study of the US civil rights movement is a model in this respect. Interestingly he argues that one unintended consequence of its success in re-establishing black voting rights in the South was that it “triggered a significant electoral realignment in the US that wound up dramatically reducing the political leverage available to civil rights forces and, indeed, ushered in the forty years of conservative Republican dominance that appears only now to be ending in America.”

Not all the contributions in the Oxford book strike the fine balance that McAdam and others achieve. However, the only contribution I seriously quarrel with is that of Richard English on the civil resistance in Northern Ireland. English downplays the discrimination endured by the Catholic/Nationalist population prior to the rise of the civil rights campaign and gives the latter little credit for the reforms that subsequently took place.

A total substitute?
I would like to consider two out of the many questions these books raise for advocates of radical nonviolence.

First: can civil resistance, and advance preparations for it, be a total substitute for armed force in the defence of a country? Roberts in the introduction to the Oxford book takes the view that it cannot be so because its efficacy depends on a host of variables, often including international ones such as the existence of outside states with armed forces which can exert pressure on governments and/or provide support to resisters. Thus he points out that the rescue of Jews in occupied Denmark in 1943 was dependent on the existence of a defended space in Sweden to which they could escape. Roberts therefore sees defence by civil resistance as an option to be deployed at particular times and in particular circumstances. Such a pragmatic approach is of course compatible with support for strong military forces.

Second: could unarmed peacekeepers replace military ones in civilian protection and other peacekeeping roles in countries facing violent upheaval or extensive human rights abuses? Section two of the Clark book has chapters describing examples of such unarmed protection or confrontation including by Peace Brigades International in Colombia, the Nonviolent Peaceforce in the Philippines and Sri Lanka, and the Women’s International Peace Service in Palestine.

However, there remains a question about how far these experiences can be expanded or universalised. Luis Enrique Eguren in his chapter on developing a strategy for accompaniment postulates a deterrent effect on repressive governments. This chimes with Roberts’ view that external governments are sometimes crucial to the success of civil resistance.

Eguren also maintains that observers offer little protection unless there is a functioning state, and that in situations of lawlessness where the state or government cannot play its role, for example Somalia in the 1990s, international accompaniment lacks deterrent power.

I find convincing, however, Christine Schweitzer’s response in her chapter that deterrence is only one factor in accounting for successful nonviolent intervention; relationship building to the local community and building up trust with the local actors in conflict, she argues, “is at least as important as international clout”.

Clearly there are not at present a sufficient number of committed and trained people to deal with many of the situations where peacekeepers are needed, and in my view it is therefore sometimes necessary to support UN or regional peacekeeping operations even where they are carried out by the military. Eguren is no doubt correct, too, in concluding that in some situations unarmed peacekeepers would not be effective.

However, the organisations and individuals engaged in nonviolent intervention are playing a pioneering role in exploring the limits of what is possible and opening up new possibilities for the future.