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On the Effectiveness of Non-violent Revolution

The Book Referred to in the Article

While this article (HT: Bruxy Cavey via Twitter) plainly states that it does not address the moral justification for violent or non-violent uprisings and revolutions, the authors investigated which method of revolution has been more effective from 1900-2006. Here are their surprising(?) findings:

In ongoing struggles against oppressive governments, movements for change often confront a key strategic question. From Syria to Morocco to Bahrain to Occupy Wall Street, activists want to know: would unarmed resistance be enough?

Generally, yes. Nonviolent resistance is more than twice as successful as violent resistance, even in the face of brutal regime repression. That’s what Maria Stephan, a strategic planner in the U. S. State Department, and I found when we examined 323 social change campaigns from around the world between the years 1900 and 2006.

We believe that ours is the first study to try to answer in a systematic, empirical way whether nonviolent or violent resistance methods are better at producing short- and long-term political change.  We looked at the success rates of the toughest types of insurrections: anti-dictator, self-determination and anti-occupation movements. Our cases range from the famed Indian Independence movement in the 1930s and 1940s to the Serbian movement to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, among many others.

The results are detailed in our book, Why Civil Resistance Works: the Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. The results were a surprise to me, a skeptical scholar of political violence. In our book we set aside the question of which method of resistance is right or wrong morally and assessed, instead, which was the superior strategic choice.

In addition to finding robust evidence that nonviolent campaigns succeeded far more often than the violent ones in the 20th and 21st centuries, we also found that countries experiencing nonviolent uprisings are much more likely to emerge from the conflicts democratic and with a lower risk of civil war relapse compared to places where insurgencies were violent.  And we suspect that in most cases where violent insurgency has succeeded, a well-executed nonviolent campaign may have been equally successful.

The article goes on to discuss possible reasons for this result. Personally, I don’t find the result at all surprising. As the article later states, armed revolt makes it easier for the regime to justify armed defense, and the army has no problem firing back. Non-violent revolt, especially a nuanced and varied approach, makes it hard for a regime to squash. Also, the army is more likely to balk at shooting when there is no direct affront to their lives. Firing on unarmed protesters is harder to justify. Forcing workers on strike to return to work is hard to manage. The non-violent approach is also easier to build since there is not the moral ambiguity of arguing why it is acceptable to bring violence to bear in a certain situation.

As a Christian, I really don’t find this all that surprising. The non-violent approach seems more aligned with the way of Christ displayed in the gospels. We are admonished to pray for our enemies and love them, rather than curse them. I’m never shocked when some part of the Way exemplified and instructed by Christ works well, even for those who may not acknowledge the fullness of His Way. To me, this kind of thing always reminds me that the Way of Christ is not just “fire insurance” to save me from going to hell. The Way of Christ is wise for this world, as well as the next.

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