Finding a new midwife for a rebirth of history

A Force More Powerful
September 28, 2001

The argument of this book proceeds from a reaction against what the authors call "the mythology of violence": a mythology fostered by the historical memory and impact of such social and political upheavals as the French, Bolshevik and Chinese revolutions, the epochal significance of these events seeming to illustrate Lenin's description of violence as "the midwife of history" and Mao Zedong's summary formulation: "power comes out of the barrel of a gun".

It is especially to the romantic fascination with revolution, embodied by the personality of Che Guevara, that the authors oppose their vision of non-violent conflict, for which they claim not merely a moral superiority but greater efficacy in achieving political and social goals.

Although precedents can be cited from earlier centuries - for example the civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau - non-violence as a method of resistance is a peculiar 20th-century phenomenon, associated specifically with Mahatma Gandhi, who formulated its principles and perfected its practice in the long struggle against British colonial rule in India. The success of Gandhi's methods lent the idea of non-violence a powerful moral force that also gave it exemplary value for other movements around the world. This book consists of extended chronicles of the most prominent of these movements.

It is a sign of the authors' scrupulousness that, apart from accounts of non-violent struggles that have attracted sympathy and support in the West - such as the Solidarity movement in Poland - they devote a chapter to the intifada , in which they provide an account of the grievances of the Palestinian Arabs in their conflict with Israelis. Non-violence as a method of resistance arose in all these instances not so much from abstract principle as from a pragmatic consideration by disaffected groups and rebellious communities of the formidable odds they often faced in their confrontation with established power. By laying bare through passive protest the brute nature of oppression, they achieve psychological and moral advantage over their oppressors and thus deny legitimacy to authoritarian rulers.

We are made aware not only of the vicissitudes that attended the evolution of each struggle, but also of the pressures that affected the thinking of the actors and conditioned their strategies. It is well known that Gandhi had to contend with the internal tensions created by the bitter relations between Muslims and Hindus in India; we are less familiar with the problems arising from Lech Walesa's often ambiguous relationship with his fellow workers at the Gdansk shipyard that threatened the survival of Solidarity as a movement. Even more telling is the light shed by the authors' narrative on the tactical errors of the Chinese students in Tiananmen Square that led to the speedy collapse of their movement.

The authors do not aspire to an analytical engagement with the subject of non-violent protest. Their documentation is, however, intended to demonstrate that the recourse to violence, even in the service of what may be considered a just cause, always entails an ethical dilemma. Because violence generates a destructive logic of its own, it invariably casts a shadow on the political and social objectives for which it is employed. The authors cite the Basque organisation Eta and the IRA as examples of movements whose embrace of violence has undermined and indeed compromised the causes they were originally meant to defend.

Their demonstration leaves us, however, with the question of how far non-violence can go in the many circumstances where the forces against which it is pitted are, in a very objective sense, quite overwhelming. The question is prompted by the many counter-examples that contradict the success stories they relate and the extreme cases where their moral premises turn out to be insufficient to sustain their thesis. An outstanding case evoked by the authors is that of Sri Lanka, where for two decades non-violent methods of protest by the Tamil minority proved unavailing against the intransigence of the Sinhalese majority, intent on subjecting the Tamils to their linguistic and economic domination, provoking armed rebellion by the Tamils.

Clearly, the effective potential of non-violent protest has to be measured against the forces its adherents have to confront. But in their unqualified advocacy of the ethics of non-violence, the authors seem reluctant to contemplate the possibility of its practical limitations in certain exceptional situations. While this is an admirable position, it skirts an essential discussion that has preoccupied theologians, moral philosophers and scholars: the conditions of the permissible and even necessary use of violence.

Despite the limitation indicated by these observations, this book is an important documentation of non-violence as an attested historical force. It provides testimony of the individual courage of the practitioners of non-violent protest, and the human dimension that has helped to place the concept firmly within the field of contemporary political and social discourse and practice and, even more broadly, within the purview of a universal moral consciousness.

F. Abiola Irele is professor of African, French and comparative literature, Ohio State University, United States.

A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict

Author - Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall
ISBN - 0 312 22864 3
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £19.99
Pages - 544

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