That is a question that has come up time and time again in leftist circles, both when discussing our reaction to oppression at home and abroad. Recently the topic has come up again within the context of the "Arab Spring" that led to the relatively expedient overthrow of governments in Tunisia and Egypt, and prolonged unrest and civil war in several other nations (e.g., Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain). Egypt, in particular, has been held up as an example of a so-called "nonviolent revolution", although such a label strikes me as misleading, at best. For that to have truly been the case, we would require good reason to believe that the individuals and groups protesting the eventually deposed government somehow managed to withstand the violent onslaughts of the Mubarek regime without so much as firing a shot. As Richard at American Leftist reminds us, such a notion is laughable. Even more ridiculous, as Richard duly notes, have been those commentators who seem to have convinced themselves that those "noble savages" in Egypt would have never utilized nonviolent resistance (to the extent that they chose to) without the intervention of Euro-American theorists and organizations. Still more ridiculous have been those Euro-American commentators who have condemned those among the Egyptian resistance who did use violence against the oppressive violence of the state. Suffice it to say, there are plenty of folks in Egypt who did not appreciate being told by a bunch of Americans how to run their revolution.
Now let me add a few other things: I am actually fairly familiar with Gene Sharp's work. His books on nonviolent action are often required reading in Peace Studies courses, and some of his work does continue to grace my own personal bookshelf space. His theoretical approach to power and legitimacy is well worth taking the time to understand, and many of the tactics he discusses in his various books are surely worth studying as well. Although my own views regarding the utility of nonviolence have evolved over the years, I think I have remained reasonably consistent in my views. To wit, I view nonviolent tactics as among those that should be part of any activist's or radical organization's arsenal. Under certain sets of conditions, nonviolent actions can be quite effective. In particular, for nonviolence to have even a faint chance at succeeding, there needs to be tangible international support and attention. To an extent, the Egyptian revolutionaries could count on that. Even then, there has to be good reason to believe that the opponent or opponents (e.g., the Mubarek regime) are willing to hear out the demands of the dissidents and negotiate in good faith and to respond nonviolently in kind - a condition that the Egyptian revolutionaries had good reason to believe did not exist.
Going a bit further, as others have no doubt observed, often successful nonviolent actions have been done in conjunction with others who are using violence. Although that does not necessarily minimize the importance of nonviolent resistance, it sure does put it in perspective. One might even argue that without the willingness of others to utilize violent means to attain political change, the space to use nonviolent means will not be open. Heck, I've been quite impressed with the largely nonviolent approach used by the Zapatistas, which has had some success for them in their struggle against the organizational and structural (some would say systemic) violence against the Indigenous and the poor in Mexico. However, it was their guerrilla war, and the fact that they're hardly disarmed, that has freed them up to wage a somewhat successful nonviolent struggle.
Basically, my bottom line is that it should be up to those who are oppressed to determine the means they shall use to resist their oppressors. Lecturing those who are being oppressed about being "insufficiently nonviolent" is something I find personally abhorrent and intellectually dishonest. In essence, such interventions serve the purposes of the oppressors rather than show solidarity with the oppressed. I also will note that even within the relatively "comfortable" socioeconomic circumstances in which we find ourselves in the so-called "West", that leftists have generally done themselves a disservice to the extent that they have ruled out any use of violence in order to achieve desperately needed political, economic, and social change. To what extent have we cut ourselves off at the knees for the last several decades? I wonder sometimes about the extent to which such a refusal to consider the potential necessity of violence has allowed for the illusion of being morally superior, of being innocent bystanders.
To be continued...