Revolution Without Violence?

Tomki Nemec
Václav Havel leaving an unofficial meeting with Lech Wałesa at the Czech–Polish border, March 17, 1990

Amid both the gloom of the season and the recent uprisings in the Arab world, it is bracing to look back at the last thirty years or so and see how much has actually gone more or less well. The end of the cold war, the demise of communism, and the emergence of new democratic states of varying quality all represent important historical change. Most of the radical political and economic transformations of the last quarter-century, moreover, have been brought about with little or no bloodshed. The “velvet” revolution, based on civil resistance, organization, and negotiation, came into fashion. Much was owed to Mikhail Gorbachev.

What we now call “civil resistance” often takes the form of mass rallies and demonstrations, as in Prague in 1989 and Tehran in 2009. People also engage in strikes, boycotts, fasts, and refusals to obey the law. All these have been evident in the largely leaderless, but Internet-coordinated, overthrow of the government in Tunis and the mass protests in Cairo, whose outcomes probably won’t be clear for some time. Civil resistance usually cannot survive systematic and violent repression or a totalitarian police state, and it is still often suppressed by authoritarian governments and oligarchies. At least in the Arab world, this seems to be changing.

Modern nonviolent civil resistance has usually been associated with Mohandas K. Gandhi, who began his experiments with civil resistance to discrimination against Indians in South Africa in 1906 and moved to India to challenge the British administration of the Raj in 1915. Whatever the success or failure of his campaigns, Gandhi is the name most frequently invoked by nonviolent civil resistance movements, although I have seen little reference to him during the recent uprisings in the Middle East.


The Oxford University project on civil resistance was established in 2006. Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, edited by Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash, contains reports on different cases by nineteen members of this project. It is a highly informative compilation of differing quests for political, economic, and social change over the past half-century, most of them nonviolent. Successful or not, these efforts have contributed to a growing body of common wisdom about how civil resistance can work.

Civil resistance is seldom, if ever, a force that acts entirely on its own. As Adam Roberts explains, there is “a rich web of connections between civil resistance and other forms of power,” sometimes including force, violence, or the threat thereof. There is no set formula, although the methods used by successful civil resistance movements are carefully studied and sometimes emulated by succeeding movements. April Carter mentions that Gene Sharp, the author of The Politics of Nonviolent Action, has listed 198 methods of…

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