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.
When you look at American history and study the successful social reform movements of the past 100 years — woman suffrage, labor, racial equality and civil rights, environment, women's rights, and so on — every one of these issues, and many many others, were reformed through nonvilent 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 nonviolent 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