A time to give peace a chance

Non-Violent Social Movements
November 10, 2000

This might seem an inauspicious time to publish a book on non-violent strategies for social change. The Dayton Agreements of 1995, which ratified many of the Serb gains of the 1992-95 Bosnian war, seemed to show some Kosovan Albanians that it was violence that would achieve the goal of independence. It was military force that drove Serb forces out of Kosovo; and it is armed troops that are protecting the East Timorese and helping to create the conditions in which an independent state can be constructed.

Yet not only do contributors to this volume show that "organised non-violence" has played an important role in political struggle, collectively they also offer a persuasive argument that this role might become increasingly significant. Non-violent activists looking for inspiration, academics who need well-researched case studies and general readers wanting to inform themselves about a badly understood topic will all benefit from this book.

The authors examine non-violent resistance in more than 20 countries in five continents over the past 30 years. Three chapters consider struggles in regions: the Middle East and North Africa, the Soviet bloc, and Latin America. The rest look at individual countries, all but two, Germany and the United States, in the developing world.

The volume has two main strengths. First, the detailed descriptions it offers of the emergence and development of non-violent movements. Second, the implicit theoretical framework most of the contributors use. Combining elements of resource-mobilisation theory and the political-process model, this approach analyses social movements in terms of, inter alia , pre-existing networks and organisations; the resources available to them (tangible - people, money, meeting places; and intangible - skills, ideas, commitment); how these resources are coordinated and used; and the political and cultural opportunities conducive to action. Movements are not spontaneous: they are the culmination of years of planning, training and action, and their effectiveness, or lack of it, is to a significant extent determined by the political conjuncture within which they operate.

In his analysis of the 1986 "people power" uprising in the Philippines that helped overthrow Ferdinand Marcos, Stephen Zunes explores the origins of the revolt in long-standing movements among the rural and urban poor; the partial boycott of the 1984 election and the huge leftwing alliance, Bayan, to which this gave birth; the welgang bayan , or "people's strikes" that Bayan (and others) organised and regarded as dry runs for a general strike that would topple Marcos; the entry into the movement of the middle classes after the assassination of Benigno Aquino; and the important role played by foreign organisations such as International Fellowship of Reconciliation in training activists in non-violent techniques. The events of February 1986, when some 2 million people took to the streets to support the military revolt, therefore had a long gestation.

Ronald Pagnucco and John D. McCarthy make a similar case for Serpaj-al (Service for Peace and Justice in Latin America), a transnational social movement organisation founded in 1974 with the aim of coordinating national groups "seeking progressive change" and training them in non-violent methods.

A recurrent question, posed implicitly or explicitly throughout the book, is how successful has non-violence been in effecting social change? Daniel Zirker argues convincingly that in Brazil non-violence was able, at a specific juncture in the country's history, to unite forces opposed to the military dictatorship within a powerful rival institution, the Catholic church. Lee Smithey and Lester R. Kurtz contend that in the Soviet bloc in 1989-91, non-violent social movements were "highly significant factors in the demise of communist regimes".

Elsewhere, non-violent struggle appears to have failed: the first Palestinian intifada , as Souad Dajani writes, did not bring independence; in Burma, the military dictatorship is still in power. But perhaps, in such cases, success is something else: building the foundations for future work and publicising an issue. Take the Ogoni: they still suffer at the hands of Shell and the Nigerian government, but they have, as Joshua Cooper shows, at least made their plight an international cause.

In the stimulating final chapter, the editors give three reasons why they think non-violent movements are likely to spread. First, the cost of armed insurrection outweighs its benefits. Second, unarmed methods are more effective: it is harder for a regime to suppress non-violent than violent opposition. Third, the habits and practices acquired in an armed insurgency are unsuited to building a democratic, peaceful and pluralistic post-revolutionary society.

What happened in Kosovo might suggest this argument is wrong. But perhaps the lesson is that outsiders (states, the United Nations, groups in civil society) should, from the late 1980s, have offered the Democratic League of Kosovo coherent support. If they had, perhaps the Kosovans, and we, would have been spared a war.

Patrick Burke is visiting lecturer in politics, University of Westminster.

Non-Violent Social Movements

Editor - Stephen Zunes, Lester R. Kurtz and Sarah Beth Asher
ISBN - 1 57718 075 5 and 076 3
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £55.00 and £15.99
Pages - 336

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