This article is written from the point of view of "Tactical" nonviolence. See Two Kinds of Nonviolent Resistance for a comparison of "Tactical" and "Philosophical" nonviolence.]
Historically, there have been instances where revolutionary Nonviolent Resistance was used to overthrow authoritarian governments or liberate nations from colonial rule, but Nonviolent Resistance is more commonly used to reform some aspect of government or society — the U.S. Civil Rights Movement being a case in point.
Let's take a stroll down Memory Lane, a century or so back in time.
SHAZAM! Welcome to the year 1908. What do you see?
Right to Vote. If you're a woman, you cannot vote. If you're a Black, or Latino, or a mixed-race man, you are also denied the right to vote in many parts of the country (not just the South). If you're Asian or Native American you're not (and can't become) a citizen, so no voting for you either. In many states, the poll tax is stiff, and if you're not wealthy enough to pay it you can't vote. By some estimates, in the election of 1908, the majority of American adults (perhaps 60%) are denied the right to vote in one way or another. (see Voting Rights History Two Centuries of Struggle).
Freedom of Speech. Your freedom of speech is honored more in the breech than the reality. The Post Office, for just one example, does not allow you to send or receive anything it deems "subversive" or "obscene," and its standards are highly imaginative.
If you're arrested, you have no right to a lawyer, and if they beat a "confession" out of you with a rubber-hose it is admissible in court.
Your right of free association does not extend to joining a union or any organization considered "anarchist" or "un-American" by the powers-that-be.
There is no generally-recognized "right of privacy." Aspects of sexuality are regulated by law, and if caught engaging in consensual — but "unnatural" — sexual acts you face hard prison time. As a general rule of thumb, an "unnatural act" is any sexual practice that cannot result in a woman becoming pregnant.
The typical urban blue-collar workday is 10-12 hours. For rural labor, the workday is "can-see to can't see." You get no overtime pay, no vacations, no sick days, no paid holidays, and no pension.
There are no government health or safety regulations. If you're poisoned or maimed on the job, you get to beg or starve on the streets.
If you're fired, or your plant closes, there is no unemployment insurance. When you're too old to work, there is no Social Security. If your family cannot support you, your options are grim.
Wages for most urban and rural workers are just barely above the starvation level. Workers are housed in rat and roach-infested tenements and shanties, often with no running water or indoor toilets.
In some industries you're not paid in money but rather in "scrip" that can only be used for shoddy, overpriced goods at the company store. If you labor in agriculture you might not be paid at all, but rather exist in the semi-slavery of debt-peonage or share-croppage. And you might find yourself a sailor at sea after a "hiring process" that consists of a drugged sip of whiskey or maybe just a hickory club upside the head. Difficiency diseases such as rickets, scurvy, beri-beri, pellagra, and goiter are wide-spread among both urban and rural poor with hundreds of thousands of children suffering, and often dying, from malnutrition-related deficiency diseases. Public health officials such as Dr. Joseph Goldberger are exoriated by business and political leaders as "dangerous radicals" for claiming that deficiency diseases are caused by poverty and poor diet.
Unions are illegal. It's a Federal crime — a violation of the Anti-Trust Acts — for you and your fellow workers to jointly ask for higher pay.
Race (Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Indians, and mixed race)
You must endure the oppression and humiliation of the Jim Crow system of segregation, "white-only," and back-of-the-bus. Not just in the South, but in many other areas as well.
Jobs are listed as "white-only" in the newspaper ads, and only the most menial occupations are open to you. And if you do find a job, you're last-hired and first-fired.
Most trade unions are either "white-only," or maintain segregated white and "colored" locals with unequal benefits and services. In some areas it is against the law for whites and non-whites to be in the same union.
Residential segregation is widespread nationwide. You cannot live where you wish, even if you can afford it. In the South and some other regions, there are separate and cruelly-unequal school systems for whites and Blacks. Elsewhere, "defacto" school segregation is the norm, with district and assignment boundaries carefully drawn to create all (or overwhelmingly) white and non-white schools. Both north and south, white schools have significantly higher funding, better facilities, and newer textbooks than non-white schools.
Most police departments are all white, as is the entire judicial system. The cops and courts assume you're guilty. You're obviously guilty of not being white, so you're probably guilty of that other crime too. Police brutality, false arrest, and jailhouse beatings are a fact of life.
Lynchings by the Klan and white-supremacist mobs occur not just in the South but nationwide. You also face other forms of racist violence — beatings, arson, rape, and extortion. Blacks are most often the victim of lynching — by official report 89 Blacks are lynched in this year of 1908, an average of seven a month (the actual number is much higher). Latinos in the Southwest, Asians in California, and Native Americans throughout the West also face violent attack, particularly if they try to vote or work in a "white" occupation.
Women of all races
As a woman, most occupations are closed to you and you are paid less than half of what men earn for similar work.
In some states, you have no right to own property. In others you lose all of your property to your husband upon marriage, and that property is not returned if you are divorced or cast out.
Abortion is a crime. Both you and the doctor, nurse, or back-alley quack who perform one are jailed if you're caught. Under the "Comstock Laws," anyone who provides you with contraceptives or birth-control information is liable to arrest. (Men are permitted to use condoms outside of marriage to protect their health.)
In many states, mixed-race marriages are illegal and you face prison for the crime of "miscegenation." But under the social doctrine of "Paramour Rights," white males can force sex on non-white women through physical or economic coercion. They face little or no legal or community sanction for doing so, and children conceived by such rapes are considered "colored."
In 1908, property rights are almost absolute. As a practical matter, industry can do anything it wants on its property regardless of how it affects others. It can pour as much filth, pollution, and poison into the air, rivers, and oceans as it wishes.
Entire species of common wildlife either have been, or are on the verge of, total extinction. There are no National Parks, but that probably doesn't bother you because only 1% or 2% of the population have time or wealth for leisure activities anyway.
Health and safety regulations are almost non-existent. Under the ruling doctrine of caveat emptor ("buyer-beware"), food processors can (and do) sell you contaminated meat from diseased animals and products containing "filthy, decomposed, or putrid" substances. Some products contain addictive drugs — such as the cocaine in Coca-Cola — to encourage your brand loyalty.
Eating establishments can (and do) serve you food contaminated with rat shit, roaches, maggots, and "extenders" of unknown origin. Their cooking oil is likely rancid, and you risk food poisoning from bacteria, parasites, and various toxins. But preparing your own meals still puts you at risk of cancer or degenerative disease because poisons and pesticides permeate food and water supplies.
Though petro-chemical smog has yet to be invented, the urban air that city dwellers must breath is often a foul miasma of coal and wood smoke combined with the stench of rotting garbage, manure-filled streets, and human waste. And swarming clouds of flies are a notable feature of the metropolitan ambience.
Over the past century, every one of these issues, and many many others, were reformed through people-power. Money-power, as always, strove to prevent any social change that might possibly upset the status quo and threaten their place at the top of the heap. On every one of these issues the rich and powerful — and therefore the government — initially opposed and resisted reforms. But people-power forced both government and society to correct (or at least partially ameliorate) these abuses — though in some respects, some of these struggles continue to this day.
In almost all cases, the movements and campaigns that successfully addressed the issues listed above were nonviolent — though they might not have explicitly described themselves that way. (Yes, on occasion labor engaged in some picket-line self-defense, but those cases were the exception not the rule. Over-all, labor achieved its gains using what today we would call Nonviolent Resistance.)
Sometimes nonviolent people-power took the form of direct action protests — marches, rallies, civil-disobedience, boycotts, strikes, etc. Other times it took the form of letters, petitions, public meetings, and election campaigns. But it was nonviolent people-power that made the difference because people have power beyond their imagination when they use it collectively.
In the decades after World War II, the peoples of Africa and Asia liberated themselves from centuries of violently maintained colonial rule. Almost all of these struggles began as nonviolent political campaigns. Many of them remained predominately nonviolent all the way to victory. Some of them turned to armed revolutionary struggle after nonviolent attempts were ruthlessly suppressed by military and police.
Nonviolent Resistance is weakest when confronting foreign occupiers who neither speak the language nor share the culture, and strongest when the reverse is true. Guerilla wars can be effective against a foreign military force operating at a distance from its homeland, but they are rarely effective against a domestic government supported by its local military and some significant portion of the population. Which is why in the modern, post-colonial era, most of the revolutions that have successfully overthrown their own authoritarian governments have been nonviolent. For example, in the post-colonial era:
1973 - Thailand (the "October Rising")
1974 - Portugal (the Carnation revolution)
1981-1989 - Poland (Solidarity)
1986 - Filipinos (the People-power or Yellow revolution)
1987-1989 - Estonia-Lithuania-Latvia (the Singing Revolution or Baltic Way)
1989 - Czechoslovakia (the Velvet revolution)
1989 - Bulgaria
1989-1990 - East Germany
2000 - Yugoslavia (the Bulldozer revolution)
2003 - Georgia (the Rose revolution)
2004 - Ukraine (the Orange revolution)
2005 - Lebanon (the Cedar revolution)
Nonviolent Resistance does not always succeed (but then, neither does armed struggle). Some nonviolent revolutions in recent years were brutally suppressed. For example:
1976 - Thailand
1988 & 2007 - Burma
1989 - China (Tiananmen Square)
2008 - Tibet
There have been some revolutions achieved through a combination of violent and nonviolent strategies & tactics. For example:
1960-1994 - South Africa struggle against apartheidAnd there have also been a few successful armed revolutions. For example:
1978-1979 - Iran (the Islamic revolution)
2005 - Kyrgyzstan (the Tulip revolution)
1978-88 - Afghanistan (vs the Soviet Union)
1979 - Nicaragua (Sandanista)
1989 - Rumania
But overall, violent armed struggles have had far less success in the modern era than nonviolent campaigns. Basques, Tamils, Chechneans, Tauregs, Kurds in Turkey and Iran, and other separatists have all so-far failed to win independence through armed struggle. Neither the Shining Path nor FARC have overthrown the governments of Peru or Columbia. Palestinians have not achieved their own state. The IRA was unable to end British rule over Northern Ireland. Ongoing Moslem insurgencies in Thailand and the Philippines remain ineffective, as do a wide variety of other armed struggles and guerrilla wars around the world.
Those who espouse violent revolution scorn Nonviolent Resistance, condemning it as weak and un-manly. But the facts are that in today's modern world nonviolent social change has succeeded far more often than armed struggle.
Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2008
Two Kinds of Nonviolent Resistance
Nonviolent Resistance & Political Power
Notes from a Nonviolent Training Session