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 nonviolence. Be that as it may, the essential elements of successful nonviolent action, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King to Lech Wałesa, have been perceptive strategy, imaginative and canny leadership, organization, and popular support. Coverage of civil resistance by the press, the Internet, and television has played an increasingly important part in its success.

The basic rationale of civil resistance is that the power of rulers ultimately lies in the obedience and cooperation of their subjects. So far, at any rate, no one has found a reliable way of making civil resistance work in a totalitarian police state—as distinguished from the satellites of such states—although the current revolts in the Arab world may prove an exception to this rule. The American civil rights movement or the ultimately effective protests against the war in Vietnam could count on publicity and support in a working democracy. In Nazi Germany and the USSR, there were no such successes. Nor did the Tiananmen Square movement for reform in China in 1989 or the mass protests of Buddhist monks in Burma over increases in the price of food and fuel in 2007 survive forceful suppression. It was Gorbachev’s understanding of the need for change and reform and his refusal to use Soviet military force against demonstrations in the Eastern European satellites that made possible the spectacular changes of 1989. Indeed the willingness of leaders to retreat—Gorbachev, F.W. de Klerk in South Africa, or, more recently and surprisingly, Slobodan Milošević in Serbia—is crucial to the success of civil resistance movements. Current events in Tunisia and Egypt bear this out.

Gandhi, who articulated the idea of civil resistance as a “conscious option” for resisting injustice, had only a qualified success. In British imperial India, he had certain initial advantages that he exploited brilliantly. The British imperial regime was responsible to a democratic government at home; its rule rested on its relations with long-standing Indian institutions—civic, religious, military, and economic—that were the source of its strength.

Gandhi knew how to manipulate these basic features of the Raj and eventually undermined the Indian cooperation upon which British rule was based. His brilliant use of political theater with himself as the star secured widespread sympathy in the outside world and also inspired the Indian National Congress, which grew into a mass-based party that was capable of challenging the Raj and, by the end of World War II, of forming an independent government. Gandhi’s teaching and his philosophy of nonviolence and satyagraha (“truth force” or “soul force”) added a new element to India’s sense of identity and pride. It was these political and spiritual developments rather than civil resistance that finally made British rule impossible. The tragedy, which also led to Gandhi’s assassination, was that his movement was unable to prevent the horrors of Hindu–Muslim interreligious violence that accompanied Indian independence and partition.

Gandhi’s example and teaching were a basic inspiration for the United States civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From A. Philip Randolph’s threatened March on Washington in July 1940 to protest exclusionary hiring practices in defense industries to King’s successful actions of the 1960s, carefully planned and targeted, nonviolent, civil resistance was the essence of the movement’s operations.

Its strategy included inducing opponents to react brutally, thereby inviting sympathetic support from the press and public and thus encouraging the federal government to intervene on the side of law and order. King and the SCLC were masters of this technique. They selected Birmingham, Alabama, for their 1963 campaign, because the commissioner of public safety, “Bull” Connor, was a dependably violent racist hothead who could be relied upon to use dogs, cattle prods, and water cannons against peaceful demonstrators. Connor’s brutalities invited TV coverage that made him a national villain and sowed the seeds for President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In an ironic tribute, President Kennedy told King apropos of Connor, “in his own way, he has done a good deal for civil rights legislation this year.” Doug McAdam writes that with the passage of President Lyndon Johnson’s Voting Rights Act in August 1965, “the electoral underpinnings of the southern system were finally removed.” But civil resistance does not always lead to all of the desired results. As Johnson foresaw, the legislation that was a major gain for civil rights also resulted in Republican dominance in the formerly Democratic South. The vast demonstrations that successfully called for the departure of the Shah of Iran brought in a religious dictatorship that killed and tortured thousands of Iranians and is now determined to suppress the civil resistance movement that has risen to oppose it.

The civil rights movement undoubtedly profited from the post–World War II emphasis on global human rights, in which American leadership had been vital. Franklin Roosevelt, willing to trade off the issue of black civil rights in the US for support from Southern Democrats for the New Deal during the 1930s, had also been an outspoken champion of decolonization abroad. The domestic racism of the United States itself was a glaring repudiation of its international aims. It also made the United States an easy target for Soviet cold war propaganda. Such considerations stiffened the spine of the federal government in responding to the civil rights movement.

The US civil rights movement was studied by organizers of civil resistance movements in search of historic change elsewhere, especially in Eastern Europe. Events in Czechoslovakia and Poland, which in their turn became models for later struggles, offered new ideas on the method of civil resistance. In both cases earlier attempts had ended in failure, if not tragedy. In the 1968 drama that came to be known as the “Prague Spring,” a well-organized and widespread nonviolent popular movement under the leadership of Alexander Dubček demanded change and actually began the process of reform. The USSR refused to negotiate and on August 20, 1968, it invaded the country with four other Warsaw Pact allies. Dubček and his fellow reformers were arrested and taken to Moscow for “negotiations.”

Kieran Williams calls the Prague Spring “logistically so beautiful,” but shows how it was a political failure, resulting in an even more repressive government. In November 1989, the 1968 mass movement again coalesced. This time, with Gorbachev in power, there was no Soviet armed intervention, and the ensuing struggle against the Communist government was conducted by Václav Havel with style and great imagination from his theater headquarters and in rallies of steadily increasing size until the government resigned.

Poland was the first Communist-ruled country to make a peaceful, negotiated transition to multiparty democracy. This achievement and the method used provided a different model. Poland’s so-called “self- limiting revolution” took shape in the 1970s as a new strategy of peaceful opposition centering on the Solidarity movement, a strictly nonviolent alliance of workers, the intelligentsia, and the Roman Catholic Church, numbering some ten million members. Its initial aim was to expand civil liberties and human rights and to limit the Communist Party’s domination of society. It operated with deliberation and, as Aleksander Smolar puts it, “majestic self-restraint” under the leadership of Lech Wałesa. It successfully discouraged all ideas of a popular uprising as being almost certain to spawn another tyranny. Still, by 1980 the movement was seen by both the Polish authorities and Moscow to be a clear threat to the Communist system, and in December 1981, under strong Soviet pressure, the Polish prime minister, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, imposed martial law and suppressed Solidarity. Wałesa was interned and ten thousand opposition members imprisoned.

In 1985 Gorbachev came into power with radically new ideas about the desirability of change, a possibility encouraged by the 1975 Helsinki agreements that committed all its signatory governments, at least in theory, to respect human rights. The charismatic Polish pope, John Paul II, provided, in his own unique way, very public support for freedom and human rights. Solidarity was biding its time. In 1988 a rash of strikes was a final warning, and in 1989 amnesty for the Solidarity prisoners opened the way for roundtable talks with the government. The Solidarity leaders had always been realistic about the necessity for compromise.

Dominique Nabokov
Timothy Garton Ash, New York City, October 2010

Jaruzelski, for his part, apparently believed that the opposition was weak. He therefore agreed to negotiations and semifree elections. In the absence of a threat of Soviet intervention, Solidarity then proceeded to negotiate the government out of office, ending with its stunning victory in the June 1989 elections. Now that success was at hand, Wałesa was accused in some opposition quarters of being too soft on the Communists, but he held to his course of compromise and nonviolence. Although the new prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, became the first non-Communist prime minister in the Communist world, Jaruzelski was elected president. Only one year later Wałesa succeeded him.

The leaders of the old regime not only remained unpunished but retained their personal, economic, and social positions. As Aleksander Smolar writes, the fact that a “safe place was reserved for members of the old regime” has since been a major source of resentment in Polish politics. But the manner of the Polish liberation was a major contribution to the peaceful end of communism in Europe.


During the last forty years at least a dozen revolutionary events, powered by nonviolent civil resistance, have taken place around the world, of which several—notably in China and Burma—have failed to reach their objectives. The great value of Civil Resistance and Power Politics is to provide relatively succinct accounts of these diverse events in such a way as to underline both their differences and their similarities. (The cases reviewed do not include the unfinished business of Palestine.)

Portugal’s “Revolution of the Carnations” in the mid-1970s was a reaction to half a century of right-wing dictatorship and, only slightly less, to the authoritarian, Communist left. It was the achievement of Mário Soares to mobilize a broad movement to introduce, by 1976 and without bloodshed, a representative, pluralistic system of government. Soares managed to break the historical pattern of what the historian Alistair Horne, referring to the Algerian war, had called the “sad, repeated failure of the moderates, or a third force to compete against opposing extremes.” For once, in Portugal, Kerensky overwhelmed Lenin. As Kenneth Maxwell, the author of this chapter of Civil Resistance and Power Politics, writes:

The Portuguese people’s navigation of these turbulent months made their country into a precocious forerunner of the largely peaceful transitions from authoritarianism to democracy that followed in southern and eastern Europe and in Latin America. It was a remarkable historical achievement.

Civil Resistance covers, in all their variety, the Iranian revolution, the downfall of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, the ultimate rejection of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, the liberation of East Germany, the eventual independence of Kosovo, the Serbian people’s removal of Slobodan Milošević, Georgia’s “Rose Revolution,” and the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine. No chapter, however, tells a story as important and unlikely as Tom Lodge’s essay “The Interplay of Nonviolent and Violent Action in the Movement against Apartheid in South Africa, 1983–94,” a story that highlights both the limitations and the successes of civil resistance.

The African National Congress had already embraced the idea of civil disobedience against the policy of apartheid in 1950, but it was not until nearly forty-five years later that the rebellion led by the ANC finally achieved the replacement of the long-entrenched system of white minority government within the Republic of South Africa. In 1960 a breakaway group, the Pan-Africanist Congress, urged Africans to surrender themselves en masse outside police stations without the “passes” that allowed them to live in many parts of the country. Police fired into these crowds, and at Sharpeville killed sixty-nine people, evoking outrage around the world. A month later the government banned both the ANC and the PAC.

By 1961, increasing government repression seemed to show that nonviolent protest was becoming irrelevant. Nelson Mandela and other leaders therefore agreed to sponsor an armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation), to carry out acts of sabotage. By the end of 1963, most Umkhonto leaders, including Mandela, were in jail, and the ANC was in exile, with a formidable bureaucracy and an army based in Angola.

In 1976 opposition to the government began to pick up again. Trade unions were active, and Umkhonto’s sabotage operations reminded Africans that the ANC in exile was still in business. A new internal organization, the United Democratic Front, organized civil disobedience through seven hundred affiliates, and began to provide civic or community training through women’s groups and a youth congress. Civic groups in the townships began to construct the alternative institutions of “people’s power.” Lodge writes that “violent attacks by [UDF] activists on perceived collaborators were important in prompting an administrative collapse in African local government.” He also shows how a wave of industrial strikes and consumer boycotts added to South Africa’s economic troubles. In January 1986 the government declared a state of emergency and drove the UDF off the streets.

The UDF and the ANC in exile began to consider their final options, a “people’s war” or a negotiated transition to power. The ANC favored a “people’s war.” Umkhonto stepped up its guerrilla raids. South Africa’s international problems multiplied—the withdrawal of foreign investment, a $21 billion foreign debt, trouble with its African neighbors. In 1989, from his prison cell on Robben Island, Mandela opened talks with the government. Also in 1989 the fall of the Berlin Wall and Gorbachev’s new policies laid to rest a long-standing white South African obsession, an armed ANC insurgency supported by the Soviet Union. F.W. de Klerk succeeded P.W. Botha and nine days later released Mandela, who over the next four years negotiated a constitutional liberal democracy with the government. The ANC returned home and showed that it could control its supporters and support the negotiations.

Both sides recognized the other’s power and problems. Under Mandela’s charismatic leadership, care was taken to avoid humiliating the white minority, which continues to be economically powerful, and to put aside the bitter past. For all the problems that South Africa still has, including widespread AIDS, unemployment, and crime, the seemingly miraculous outcome, as Lodge notes, was brought about by “an insurrectionary movement, largely nonviolent but extensively violent as well,” and, at the end, by unprecedented statesmanship and generosity of spirit.


Timothy Garton Ash is the chronicler, the bard even, of Eastern Europe’s liberation, and of much other contemporary history as well. He is the unusual combination of an Oxford don and a world-class journalist (“the mongrel craft that I have practised for thirty years”), and nothing of interest seems to be beyond his range. About the title Facts Are Subversive, a collection of his writings from the year 2000 to the first year of the Obama presidency, he explains that facts are “subversive of lies, half-truths, myths; of all those ‘easy speeches that comfort cruel men.’” “In our time,” he writes, “sources of fact-fixing are mainly to be found at the frontier between politics and the media. Politicians have developed increasingly sophisticated methods to impose a dominant narrative through the media.” That is, among other things, an excellent description of American politics in the last two years.

Garton Ash declares that the first job of both historians and journalists is to find facts. His powers of observation and analysis and his sense of history in the making, combined with a generous humor and a knack for epigrams and zingers, make his essays both a pleasure and a revelation to read. Taken together they are a magisterial comment on a decade of rising non-Western powers, global warming, the crisis of capitalism, apparent US decline, and the somnambulism of Europe.

Garton Ash’s first subject is the changing nature of revolution and the vast crowds that accompanied it. “I spent many hours of my life standing in those crowds in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague; their behavior was both inspiring and mysterious.” Garton Ash calls 1989 “one of the best [years] in European history”; it fascinated the world with a series of so-called “velvet” revolutions,

non-violent, anti-utopian, based not on a single idea but on broad social coalitions and characterized by the application of mass social pressure…to bring the current power holders to negotiate.

In “Islam in Europe,” Garton Ash recalls that Charles Martel threw back the Muslim advance into Europe at the Battle of Poitiers in AD 732, and proceeds to a brilliant analysis of the continent’s biggest current problem. “To return from the US to Europe,” he writes,

is to travel from a country that thinks it is on the front line of the struggle against jihadist terrorism, but is not, to a continent which is on the front line but still has not woken up to the fact.

Writing thus in 2006, Garton Ash seems to underestimate the terrible and unhealed wound—and the reaction to it—that September 11 inflicted on the American collective psyche.

In the summer of 2001 Garton Ash, in Oxford, was asked by the White House to come to Washington (coach class) “next Thursday” to “prepare [President George W. Bush] for his first official trip to Europe.” At the end of this not altogether satisfactory, but highly revealing, session (“On most issues relating to Europe [the President] seemed to have an open, not to say an empty mind”), Garton Ash recalls that Bush remarked, “‘…It takes a little time to grow into this job.’ But would he? Somewhere deep down, he obviously had some doubts whether he would. So did I.”

Garton Ash admits that in his “tortured liberal ambivalence” he was wrong about the 2003 invasion of Iraq and should have written against it before it started. As it turned out, “Never in the field of human conflict was so little achieved by so great a country at such vast expense.” “Claiming to move Iraq forward towards Lockean liberty, we hurled it back to a Hobbesian state of nature.”

Away from Europe, Garton Ash writes of Burma that “I have rarely seen a more beautiful country, or a more ugly regime.” After a long talk with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was recently released from house arrest for reasons not yet apparent, he refers to “the Mandela-like mystique that comes from the combination of long captivity, international fame—including, in her case, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize—and daily vituperation by the regime.” The SLORC, the military regime, has turned Burma into a client state of China. What hope is there of a “silken” revolution to restore Aung San Suu Kyi to the legitimate position she has earned through elections and the affection of the people? Writing in 2000, Garton Ash thought that an explosion was more likely, and indeed there was an explosion in 2007 with the demonstrations by the monks, but it was easily extinguished by the generals.

For all Burma’s appalling problems, Garton Ash hopes that

something of the tranquil beauty of an isolated, traditional culture, almost unique in today’s world, could survive the necessary and longed-for tempest of modernity. But the armies of global capitalism are waiting at the frontier, engines revving up, with their container-loads of tawdry goods, their ready-made life-style packages, sex shops, reversed baseball caps, and state-of-the-art software for the unceasing manufacture of new consumer desires. These armies are more irresistible than any…People’s Army, because they are truly welcomed as liberators.

Of his time in Iran Garton Ash writes, “The Islamic revolution, like the French and Russian revolutions before it, has been busy devouring its own children. One day, its grandchildren will devour the revolution.” Of Egypt, “Trying to strangle Islamism, it feeds its growth.”

The 110 miles of Stasi files that became available in 1990 contained a 325-page file on Garton Ash, based on his years studying in East Germany. He interviewed all but one of the acquaintances who had talked about him to the Stasi and all the Stasi officers on his case, and wrote a book about it, The File (1997), that is at the same time coolly descriptive and quietly angry at a system that demanded personal betrayal.

Finally Garton Ash turns to “the elephant in all our rooms,” the global triumph of capitalism. Although there now seems to be no practical alternative to it, recent developments are not encouraging. Capitalism, Garton Ash wrote in 2007, is clearly not an automatically self-correcting system. That has since proved to be devastatingly true. Inequality of wealth has also reached grotesque levels. Garton Ash comments:

If a lot of middle-class people begin to feel they are personally losing out to the same process of globalization that is making those few fund managers stinking rich, while at the same time outsourcing their own middle-class jobs to India, then you may have a backlash.

The Tea Party has proved that to be an understatement. Worst of all, in the long term,

this planet cannot sustain six and a half billion people living like today’s middle-class consumers in its rich North…. Sustainability may be a grey and boring word, but it is the biggest single challenge to global capitalism today…. The genius of contemporary capitalism is not simply that it gives consumers what they want but it makes them want what it has to give. It’s that core logic of ever-expanding desires that is unsustainable on a global scale.

As Garton Ash puts it, “remove the elementary staples of organized, civilized life—food, shelter, drinkable water, minimal personal security—and we go back within hours to a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all.” There are now ominous global problems, of which the increasing severity and number of natural disasters probably linked to climate change may before very long have such an effect. The resulting mass migrations alone would test the veneer of civilization as never before. Is humankind irreversibly stuck in a downward spiral? Or can it find the common sense and solidarity to fight its way back? Garton Ash is skeptical.

Facts Are Subversive makes a lively companion for Civil Resistance and Power Politics. Garton Ash also reminds us that while serious progress has been made in the art and method of radical political change, we cannot count on the automatic survival and growth of democracy, nor indeed on the self-correcting capacity of a predominantly capitalist system. We also face urgent global problems to which we have scarcely started to look for solutions. The popular political involvement that was the lifeblood of civil resistance movements, as well as determined and courageous leadership, is now desperately needed nearer home.