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Diversity of tactics and the 1%

The practical advantages of nonviolent strategies in mobilising for revolution. 

In July, I participated in a Peace News Summer Camp workshop which discussed 'diversity of tactics' — the idea of including violent tactics in our actions and strategies for change. I was a little surprised when my fellow panellists wanted to turn it into a conversation about pacifism and whether violence can ever be justified.

Although I'm a pacifist, I didn't get their point. Most people who participate in nonviolent campaigns aren't pacifists; they choose nonviolent action strategically, because it increases their chance of winning. In Oman during the Arab Awakening, for example, the campaign began nonviolently but soon detoured into violence. The movement stopped, regrouped, began again nonviolently and won their objectives. Had the majority of Omanis somehow become pacifists? Of course not; they simply applied a sensible strategy.

Thanks to the work of political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, we now know that, between 1900 and 2006, when mass movements tried to overthrow their regimes, they doubled their chances of winning by choosing nonviolent struggle. Clearly the millions of people who won nonviolently had not taken an ethical stand against ever using violence, as pacifists do; they simply invented a strategy that worked.

For me, therefore, the question before us is whether 'diversity of tactics' makes sense at this time in struggles against the economic and political dominance of the 1% in the United Kingdom — or for that matter, in the United States.

Violent tactics in Tahrir Square

The question becomes clearer when we compare our situation with the 2011 uprising in Egypt, when, alongside the massive use of nonviolent action, there was also the use of injurious force against people, as well as property destruction.

It's important, however, to distinguish between moments of confrontation, when the movement chooses tactics designed to win over the large segment of the population that sympathises but is unwilling to act, and mass political and economic non-co-operation. These are stages three and four, respectively, in my five-stage framework for revolution [set out in the PN book, Toward a Living Revolution].

The Egypt we saw on television last year was in stage four, with its massive occupations and strikes and boycotts and demonstrations around the country. Stage four is when Occupy Wall Street organisers could call a general strike on May Day and actually get a response! Stage four is also when, as in the Egyptian case, property destruction and some actual violence is less likely to slow the movement; the basic population shift has been made and the momentum is already enormous.

In other words, the movement's violence in Tahrir Square isn't relevant to other movements that are still in stage three. In the UK, the US and so many other places, our task is to conduct confrontations in ways that maximise the contrast between our behaviour and that of the opponent. Our creativity and courage need to show dramatically to the public why they should join us, as happened in Occupy Wall Street's early confrontations and were largely responsible, through police violence, for its remarkable growth.

In hundreds of campaigns in the Global Nonviolent Action Database, we see this dynamic at work: nonviolent stage three confrontations lead to massive participation, and then the stage four tactics open a power vacuum and the possibility of breakthrough.

What about when our target is the 1%?

Never in my long life has the rule of the 1% been as vulnerable as now. They are experiencing a perfect storm of consequences that are directly traceable to their decisions — that is, when we do the tracing, shining the light on their decisions through creative actions.

Our challenge is to stay focused. The 1% want very much to change the conversation and distract us, as when they go about 'protecting the Olympics' in London by installing surface-to-air missiles. Their intent is to scare the public by projecting fearsomeness on the shadowy others, including, of course, activists like us.

Now we can see all the more clearly the brilliance of the African-American students sitting in lunch counters in the sixties. Of course they could have heaved rocks through windows or beaten up store owners. That would have been a tremendous gift to the racists because it would have played into the stereotype of blacks as violent. Instead, the students were emphatically nonviolent, and everyone could see exactly who it was who was violent, and begin to make connections to the violence of racism.

I don't consider property destruction to be violence, and we don't classify it as such in the Global Nonviolent Action Database. Nevertheless, using property destruction during the student sit-ins in the Deep South would have lost most of the students' campaigns. Why? Because what counts is not what we self-identified activists define as violence; what matters is what the prospective allies consider violence. They are the ones we're trying to influence to join us; having arguments among ourselves about whether property destruction is violence is a waste of time.

Few, if any, major campaigns have been won by self-identified activists alone, and certainly no revolution will be.

The gift to the 1% given by activists practicing tactics that most people perceive as violent is the invitation to change the subject, from the 1%'s greed to battles with police. The police are a buffer between us and the 1%. The police don't make the decisions; they are manipulated to deflect the issue and protect the decision makers.

When we veer from nonviolent tactics, we let the 1% off the hook; I picture them sighing with relief when we present ourselves in the eyes of most of the 99% as the violent ones.

When Daniel Hunter and I were leading workshops in South Korea, the norm for movements in that country was essentially diversity of tactics. Mainstream activism included property destruction and combat with police. But Youn Young Joon, a Korean student at the July Peace News Summer Camp, told me that movement culture has changed in the last five years.

After a national debate, activists realised that they were having trouble getting people into the streets who weren't young self-identified activists; in effect, they found they were marginalising much of the progressive population.

I immediately thought of the argument I've heard in the US (and the UK) that a reason for diversity of politics is to avoid 'exclusion' of friends and comrades. Nonviolent discipline, people argue, will leave out valued members of their political and social circles.

In Movement for a New Society, community was one of our strongest values, and yet in the many campaigns we were part of I don't remember us ever insisting on a policy so our friends could participate. For us, what really mattered was political integrity; if we were working with oppressed groups, we needed to operate in such a way as to maximise the chance that they would win their campaign — not to reduce their chances of winning for the sake of our chums.

Joon told me about the chief of police who was personally supervising a major confrontation. An activist apparently broke through the line and hit the police chief in the head, knocking off and breaking his glasses. This became the major headline of the next few days' media coverage of the protests. A photo of the assailant, taken by a movement photographer, revealed that the 'activist' was in fact a police officer dressed in jeans.

In Korea, as in so many countries, this phenomenon reveals that the 1% really wants violent demonstrators and will pay for them if necessary. How many decades of this behaviour will it take to show the bogus value of 'diversity of tactics' in stage three?

Our challenge is to devise ways to protect our campaigns from the damage that violent elements can cause them. In Serbia, student leaders in the 1990s found that young police officers were dressing as activists and doing property destruction and street fighting to sink their campaign for university reform. When the students started Otpor to bring down dictator Slobodan Milosevic, therefore, they created a new policy: Otpor's support for members beaten and arrested would not apply to those who had been provoking destruction and fighting; Otpor would be forced to assume they were undercover police. That was a harsh policy, but Otpor was up against a dictator and couldn't afford to be indulgent. Other movements may find alternative ways to protect their campaigns from the 1%'s habitual use of police provocateurs.

In stage three of the struggle, diversity of tactics seems to me a strategic loser. Stage four is worth its own discussion, but the advocates of diversity of tactics need to face our real situation now.

We have plenty of creativity for devising nonviolent tactics that focus on the 1%, which is where our focus needs to be. Like those students in the Southern sit-ins, let's keep our eye on the prize.

Stage four

Ward Churchill, Peter Gelderloos, and others have argued that the violence option needs to be available to movements fighting entrenched power, even when alongside mass participation in nonviolent tactics like occupations and strikes. Why tie our hands behind our backs? they ask. Numerous occasions may come up of repressive police and military violence when the movement should be ready to defend itself with specific and strategic violence.

I've publically debated Ward Churchill on these questions and I agree they deserve careful thought. [I respond to his booklet Pacifism as Pathology in The Sword that Heals.]

I see them as important questions in stage four in a revolutionary movement—mass political and economic non-co-operation.

In stage three ('confrontation'), movements are able to mount demonstrations of thousands, but not hundreds of thousands. Because stage four is far more massive than stage three, it can use tactics like large-scale strikes and prolonged occupations. Egypt in 2011 showed what stage four can look like, and Tahrir Square did include activists' use of property destruction and even some violence. Does Egypt offer a model of what other activists should have in mind when they reach stage four in their own country?

Advocates of diversity of tactics need to consider the 1968 French civilian insurrection. In April 1968, president Charles de Gaulle, a favourite of the 1%, was in more trouble than he knew. Under spring's quiet surface were millions of resentful French workers. Then, in May, students in Paris began demonstrating. They were brutally attacked by police and set up barricades on the Left Bank to defend themselves. Four out of five Parisians were said to be immediately sympathetic to the students.

The students' confrontation was the spark that was needed; in a few weeks, 10 million workers were on strike – that was two-thirds of the labour force!

As activists spread the insurrection across France some towns declared themselves liberated zones and began developing alternative institutions. Many of the workplaces were being occupied; grave-diggers even occupied cemeteries and the dancers of the Folies Bergère their theatre!

While doing interviews a year later, I talked with the deputy director of the largest Renault factory. He told me that he (but not the director) was allowed by the workers to tour the occupied factory. He observed workers cleaning and oiling the machinery of the assembly lines, and, puzzled, asked why in a revolutionary moment the workers were taking such good care of the place.

'Because,' a worker smiled, 'tomorrow it may be ours!'

Reports grew that young soldiers based inside France would be unwilling to follow de Gaulle's orders to repress the movement and that he was preparing to bring in troops stationed elsewhere to do the job. In the meantime students continued their sometimes violent demonstrations in the Latin Quarter and defended their barricades. Workers joined them in all-night assemblies in concert halls and university buildings, to try to build agreement on a vision of a truly democratic and egalitarian France.

As the weeks went on, the state-owned media filled the television with pictures of street battles and the barricades in flames. The clear intention was to influence the French middle classes to side with the state and take advantage of the lack of a student-worker manifesto that showed a role for the middle classes 'after the revolution'.

Finally de Gaulle went on the offensive by making concessions and dissolving the national assembly, declaring a date for new elections. Union leaders, who were worried about grassroots democracy, worked to 'chill out' their members and bring them back to the electoral fold. The insurrection lost its momentum. The 1% won.

The French insurrection happened in an advanced industrial society with a large middle class, making it a case worth studying for people in societies like that. [See chapter 2 of Toward a Living Revolution.]

It's interesting that, considering the degree of threat to the status quo, the regime killed few people. De Gaulle was probably constrained by worry about which way the middle class would go. Initial middle-class sympathy toward the students (stirred by police violence in stage three) was eroded by the carefully televised images that daily exaggerated student violence.

From my interviews I could understand how sensible it seemed to students in the streets to use violence. Still, when I drew the big picture the conclusion seemed clear: diversity of tactics even in stage four was a mistake. The students overlooked the importance to de Gaulle of the middle class as a power bloc, not to mention the reported lack of enthusiasm for street fighting among many workers and the possible confrontation waiting in the wings with battle-ready French soldiers based outside the country.

I learned a revealing story about a moment on the Left Bank when students were beginning to drag a car to a barricade they were building at the end of the street. The plan was to ignite the barricade, once built, to fuse the elements together for strength. Suddenly the owner of the car they were dragging came out of his house!

He was furious. In those days it took years of saving for a worker to buy a car, and his was being dragged away to be burnt!

The students paused, unsure what to do. The worker joined them, arguing for his car. Finally the student debate was settled by the cry: 'Let's take the car, friends, isn't this a revolution?'

The path to self-defeat is to refuse to revolutionise the means of revolution. Stuck in the romance of the French tradition, those students burned the worker's car in the name of respect for the workers.

Size does matter

In their study of 323 major violent and nonviolent campaigns between 1900 and 2006, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan found that the sheer size of a resistance movement was correlated with likelihood of success. The larger the mobilisation, the more likely the movement was to achieve its goals.

One reason why movements that chose nonviolent means were twice as likely to win against dictators, occupiers, and imperialists was that they were able to mobilise larger numbers of participants. In Why Civil Resistance Works, we find a list of the 25 largest struggles; the largest was four-and-a-half-million Chinese against the Japanese occupation. Twenty of these largest campaigns were nonviolent and five were violent. The nonviolent ones had a 70% success rate, whereas the violent ones had a 40% success rate.

Chenoweth and Stephan are not directly addressing diversity of tactics; in the book they compare armed struggle and nonviolent struggle. The book is relevant to this discussion, though, because it sheds light on one of the puzzles that came up at Peace News Summer Camp.

In a panel I posed this challenge: if advocates of diversity of tactics believe the approach is more effective in winning, why don't they simply start a campaign tackling a comparable target and show us how to win? It's popular in the US these days to target banks, for example. Why not create a diversity of tactics campaign to force a bank to yield to a demand, and let us compare the results with disciplined nonviolent campaigns?

After the discussion several people said: 'They don't campaign; they just mess with others' campaigns because that's where the people are.'

At a point when the civil rights movement was a truly mass movement in the US (1966), I was teaching at the Martin Luther King School of Social Change. One of my favourite students, an African American from the South, liked to tease me. 'You'll see,' she said, 'When I get my field placement in North Philly [Philadelphia] you'll find out that the people are way tired of this nonviolence shit.'

Two months into her field placement she came to see me. 'How's it working out?' I asked.

'Oh, they're plenty mad,' she said, 'but then when I bring up the possibility of some strategic violence alongside the demonstrations they say to me, “What you doin,' child, tryin' to get us killed?” '

Where the people are

Nonviolent mass mobilisation offers comparative safety in numbers that diversity of tactics threatens. Numbers don't guarantee success – nothing does – but make it more likely that stage four will grow, and people like the French middle classes will remain favourable to us, and increase the probability of success.

The disagreement about diversity of tactics may come from a different understanding of power. I believe the 1% (and other oppressive forces) get their power through the compliance of those below them, the willingness of others to follow the script they've been given. What shatters their power is others' refusal to obey.

As Bernard Lafayette, a staff member in Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), explained it to me in the '60s, a society is like a house. The roof is white rule, and it rests on the foundation of black compliance. When the foundation crumbles, the roof falls. It doesn't matter how many guns and tanks are piled up there on the roof. When the foundation crumbles, the roof falls anyway.

If a diversity of tactics approach leads us away from strategies that build that power, we don't need it.

This article is based on two pieces on the Waging Nonviolence website, where George Lakey writes a weekly column. See also George’s long essay The Sword That Heals and the Global Database of Nonviolent Action
Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict: see review by Michael Randle in PN 2547.

George Lakey is visiting professor at Swarthmore College and author of Toward a Living Revolution (£15, published this July by Peace News).