Tag Archives: violence

Gandhi is an icon of nonviolent resistance

How Nonviolent is Nonviolent Action?

The relationship between violent and nonviolent action is not as clear-cut as it may at first appear.

In principle, as nonviolence guru Gene Sharp repeatedly reminds us, violence must not be combined with nonviolent action. Why? For one thing, violence will undermine the legitimacy and moral high ground enjoyed by nonviolent resisters. Why is this legitimacy so important? Because of its effect in undermining the morale of the violent attackers, creating dissension among supporters of the invaders/usurpers, and building international support to sanction the aggressors/usurpers of power. Conversely, violence creates fear that not only scares off potential supporters or resistance, but also motivates the oppressor’s police and armed forces to fight back more determinedly. Thus, nonviolent discipline is a key to success, claims Sharp with few dissenting.

In reality, however, violence has played a larger role in effective nonviolent movements than is often acknowledged.

Note first that Sharp encompasses within nonviolence those acts designed to destroy strategically important property and infrastructure. He does add one important proviso: acts of sabotage must not kill or maim civilians or soldiers. Yes, civilian defenders can destroy equipment, files, computers, even bridges and tunnels. But be cautious, Sharp warns: this tactic is risky. If property destruction leads to inadvertent casualties, it may undermine popular support for the resisters and instigate extreme repression.

In short, violence cannot be combined with nonviolence because the former negates the strengths of the latter.

But some radical critics disagree. Consider the position of what is termed “deep green resistance.” Deep green resisters are not opposed to nonviolent climate movements; rather, they believe that such movements alone will not succeed in saving the planet and its species. Saving the planet, for them, involves undermining the industrial civilization that is destroying the future of all life. What is needed, they contend, is full-spectrum resistance. The full spectrum includes clandestine organizations that are sometimes violent, in addition to the above-ground, and separate, nonviolent movements. The former, in aiming to dismantle existing power structures, may engage in violence not only against property, but also at times against persons (including the possibility of guerrilla warfare). To buttress their position, they claim that, in practice, most successful nonviolent movements have partly depended for their success on violence.

My own view is that clandestine groups employing violent means are less successful than nonviolent movements, morally suspect and conducive to authoritarian outcomes.

Nevertheless, deep-green resisters have a point. Violence and the threat of armed resistance may have played a larger role in effective civil disobedience campaigns than is usually acknowledged. Aric McBay in Full Spectrum Resistance reviews, among other cases, Gandhian resistance to the British in India and the civil-rights movement in the United States led by Martin Luther King. McBay contends that violence and threats of violence emanating from outside the nonviolent movements inclined governments to make concessions to the (more moderate) nonviolent organizations.

For example, the civil-rights movement in the United States in the 1960s won substantial concessions, largely in the form of federal legislation. Certainly, these concessions would not have happened without the courageous and skillful campaigns waged by MLK and his colleagues. In addition, however, the threat of violence hung in the air. McBay mentions the role of the armed Deacons for Defense in the US South, Malcolm X and the Black Muslims, inner-city riots and destruction, and, later, the threat posed by the Black Panthers. Concessions to moderates were not just the outcome of civil disobedience.

In a sense, this critique is not new. It is a version of the “left flank strategy” that has a long lineage. Simply put, the threat or actuality of violence by radical elements encourages the authorities to compromise with the more moderate nonviolent leadership.

How does this analysis of strategy relate to nonviolent resistance? Only this: to raise awareness that the injunction to maintain nonviolent discipline, though crucial, is not the whole story. Sabotage is permissible under certain circumstances. And the threat of guerrilla warfare, waged by a clandestine group, may also incline the usurpers/attackers to compromise with the nonviolent tendency.

Whether, of course, the civilian resistance should accept such compromises, is quite another story. In many cases, the civilian leadership should demur. It is often preferable to persist: to continue to vitiate the support base of the oppressors through nonviolent action, than to settle for mitigated domination.

Richard Sandbrook is professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto and President of Science for Peace.

the book cover of the novel

The Pandemic Within

Strangely, reading Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947) during the pandemic did not depress me (further). Instead, I felt exhilarated. Yes, Camus depicts widespread despair in Oran (Mediterranean city in Algeria) as it undergoes months of quarantine. Fear and unrest rise as bubonic plague kills thousands each month But, as usual with Camus, his ideas are engaging.

Camus has intrigued me since undergraduate days. As a young man, I identified with his defiant attitude in “The Myth of Sisyphus” and L’étranger. Yes, our lives are utterly absurd in the sense of meaningless. But, despite all, including an empty heaven, we live. We may be Sisyphus with his futile unending task of pushing a boulder up a hill. However, we endure, and we can even imagine Sisyphus happy. Why? Because we devise our own meaning.

As an older man re-visiting these works, I found that defiance less satisfying. Perhaps age dulls the sense of possibility. In any case, in The Plague Camus is less defiant, more humble, and distinctly chilling.

The crux of the novel arrives at the beginning, when the narrator (Dr Rieux, as it turns out) observes that people consider themselves free, but “no one will be free as long as there are pestilences.” This observation has both an obvious, and a less obvious, meaning.

Obviously, epidemics and pandemics curb the freedom of everyone. People spend aimless days of high tension, mourn their dead, and are restricted to concentration camps if exposed to the virus. Even so, the experience of the people of Oran is, in some ways, not as dire as ours: people flock to bars, restaurants, cinemas and beaches, despite the contagion. No social distancing there, surprisingly.

People wait to be freed from the pestilence. Religion offers little consolation. Father Paneloux, his own faith in doubt, pleads for people to surrender to “God’s will”, not to question a fate that is all part of His design. Dr Rieux, the good doctor, is unpersuaded. We can count only on ourselves, he thinks. God remains mute in his heaven, in the face of all atrocities. Rieux, the model of an ethical and thoughtful person, acts to heal the afflicted purely out of common decency. That is all one can rely on.

At the less obvious level, the plague represents the propensity within humans for violence and murder. Tarrou, a visitor to Oran of mysterious origins, develops this idea in conversation with Rieux. Other reviewers have represented the plague as  fascism, but I see no evidence for this interpretation. Although the story is deliberately obscure, a youthful Tarrou apparently participated  in a radical left-wing group that assassinated people to advance a Utopian future. He later realizes a bitter truth: not only is killing never justified by any principle, but also, and more unsettling, “we all have the plague, and I have lost my peace.” The virus – the propensity for violence – may remain dormant for a while, but it never disappears. It will become virulent again and the contagion will spread.

So how do we live? Only by being perpetually on guard against the resurgence of the pestilence and taking the side of victims. “While unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilence,” we must “strive our utmost to be healers.”

Are we humans worth saving, if our basic natures are so debased? Yes, says Camus, in a carefully balanced judgment . “There are more things to admire in people than despise.” We hope he is right. We hope to encounter many Dr Rieux, to become Dr Rieux. But one thing is certain; indeed, it is the key lesson. To achieve peace, both in the political and the personal sense, we must be true healers. We must be alert to, and act against, the pandemic within.

Richard Sandbrook is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto and President of Science for Peace Canada.

Image by Random House.