Why Civil Resistance Works - Review

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Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by Erica Cheoweth and Maria J. Stephan

reviewed by Ruth Yarrow

With the Arab Spring and Occupy movements having just churned out new history, this book – published by Columbia University Press, New York, 2011 – is important and timely. Instead of making the usual assumptions about violent versus nonviolent resistance, the authors carefully examine 323 violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns between 1900 and 2006, all of which sought regime change, expulsion of foreign occupiers, or secession.

The authors consider these campaigns with statistical analyses that strive to control for factors that might skew their conclusions. They support their statistical analyses with several chapters of case studies. The result: between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as compared with violent campaigns – a ringing endorsement for the effectiveness of nonviolence.

Considering why nonviolent campaigns have a participation advantage over violent campaigns, the authors conclude they have lower moral, physical, informational, and commitment barriers to taking part. Higher levels of participation lead to higher costs to the regimes maintaining the status quo, higher probability of tactical innovation, and loyalty shifts by former supporters of the status quo, including security forces. In the long term, changes brought about by nonviolent campaigns create much more durable and internally peaceful democracies than changes caused by violent campaigns.

The authors focus on resistance campaigns that deliberately avoid the usual political channels and that work instead on the fringes of the mainstream, often illegally. Their actions employ social, psychological, economic, and political methods including boycotts, protests, sit-ins, stay-aways, and other acts of civil disobedience and non-cooperation to change policies and power. These contrast with the bombings, shootings, kidnappings, infrastructure destruction, and other kinds of harm to people and property by violent campaigns.

The authors make clear that resistance campaigns are not guaranteed to succeed because they are nonviolent; one in four nonviolent campaigns since 1900 was a total failure. But some common assumptions about nonviolent campaigns, such as they can only be successful when their adversary doesn’t use violent repression, turn out to be false; nonviolence can be effective even in brutally repressive regimes.  The repression can backfire when regime supporters find the repression abhorrent, and when the repression turns passive supporters of the resistance into active participants. 

While more than one in four violent campaigns have succeeded, they have often done so by developing a key characteristic of nonviolent campaigns: broad, diverse bases of participation.  Also, the conditions left behind by the “success” of a violent campaign are often grim, with high human casualties and suffering, and poor conditions for the growth of democracy.

I found the book’s tables of statistical analyses inscrutable until I read the text that accompanied them. The text is also rather dry and repetitions; however, that dryness is counteracted by juicy details in the case histories that the authors present (the Iranian Revolution, the First Intifada for Palestinian self-determination, the People Power movement in the Philippines, and the 1988 Burmese pro-democracy uprising).  The lists of hundreds of nonviolent and violent campaigns at the end of the book reflect the thorough nature of the authors’ work.

In the perennial debate about effective paths to social change, this research recommends the path of nonviolence. In one particularly moving case study, the book describes nonviolent resisters in the Philippines protecting military defectors with a human shield of tens of thousands of civilians, including nuns and clergy. Instead of hurling rocks at the troops loyal to the Marcos regime, the nonviolent resisters offered them food and appealed to their nationalism to encourage them to join the opposition. As the book’s subtitle of indicates, a nonviolent approach is the strategically logical choice because of its effectiveness. I hope this book will be widely read. ~~~

Ruth Yarrow is a member of University Friends Meeting in Seattle, WA (NPYM).