Friday, June 10, 2011

To use or not use nonviolent forms of resistance:

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...

7 comments:

Don Durito said...

Have you seen these:
http://michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com/icnc/
http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/gene-sharps-goal-liberty-in-a-world-of-market-imperatives/#comments
http://gowans.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/is-gene-sharp-superman/

What would you consider justifiable violent resistance? Most of the violent outbursts in the U.S. have come from right wing militias.

Don Durito said...

and with the zapiatistas, they haven't really established a revoltion at all, more like a seperate society.

Don Durito said...

appreciate your engagement with what I wrote earlier in the week

a few things to note: in regard to the Palestinians in particular, exhortations for them to restrict their resistance to non-violence is especially offensive, as it aims, in the words of As'ad Abukhalil, for "the total surrender of the Palestinians"

consistent with what you have written here, there hasn't been the slightest willingness for most people in the US and Europe to demand any restraint on the degree of force directed against the Palestinians by Israel, so encourging them to protest non-violently is morally repugnant, people literally encouraging the lambs to walk into the slaughterhouse

in relation to Egypt, it is important to recognize that when groups of thugs went sent out by Mubarak and the security services to attack the people in Tahrir Square, others confronted them in the streets before they could get to the square and successfully resisted them, in one instance fighting an epic struggle on a nearby overpass, so as to keep them from getting to the square and assaulting the crowd

yet, Eric Stoner would have you believe that these same courageous people, these people who fought off the thugs actually increased the possibility that the protests would fail, and that the chances of success would have been better if they had allowed the thugs to go to the square unimpeded and begin assaulted the crowd

well, maybe so, maybe the Army would have intervened (earning Stoner's condemnation as well) and the protesters would have prevailed, or maybe he believes that the crowd would have persuaded the thugs to lay down their weapons and join them

finally, there are consequences to the use of violence to overcome oppression, as I have noted in the past in regard to Algeria and the FLN, for example, but this has much to do with internalizing the practices of the oppressor, and should not lead to the conclusion that oppressed people should allow themselves to be oppressed indefinitely until such time that their oppressors agree to allow them to successfully resist non-violently

furthermore, recourse to violence does not always have bad results for the people who used to defend themselves, their culture and their community, for example, the Russians fought an existential struggle for survival against the Nazis (no doubt, Stoner would have allowed the Germans to transform the Slavic peoples of the East into an enslaved, prison labor class, in the hopes that they could someday successfully liberate themselves, not to mention what would have happened to the Jews), and this struggle planted the seeds of the future liberalization of the country under, first, Khrushchev, and, then, Gorbachev, in effect, it nurtured social attitudes that made the end of Stalinism inevitable

Don Durito said...

My reading of the various writings (most attributed to Marcos) of the Zapatistas suggests something a bit larger than a separatist effort. One might argue that in practice, that is what has emerged (so far). However, unlike other separatists, the Zapatistas have gone to great lengths with their "Other Campaign" to reach out to oppressed peoples throughout the globe, and even more so since the actions against the WTO in 1999. Their ideology is an interesting hybrid of the indigenous beliefs of the Mayans who live in Chiapas with that of Maoism - to the extent that the latter is still part of a Zapatista ideology, it would strike me as something that would invite itself to something far larger than a separatist effort. Think about the last time we heard from those in Chechnya or other more genuine separatist struggles.

Don Durito said...

I'll give you a short version of what would be a very long answer. Obviously defense of self or group from an attack would come to mind. Beyond that, I suppose the question comes down to what the aim of the violent action is - what are the goals, the intentions? Who's being liberated, and how will this action achieve liberation? To what extent have you considered collateral damage, and how do you plan to minimize the risk of collateral damage? Would other nonviolent methods work just as well or better in the context in which you are considering a violent action? I'll accept methods used by those who are aiming towards liberation of the oppressed (in whatever form that may take). Right-wing violence, which you reference correctly as the most frequent you see in the US, is aimed not at liberation, but at strengthening the hand of those who are oppressors - in other words to perpetuate and worsen the systemic violence that already exists here (if you read this blog often enough, I've often used the terms organizational and structural violence - terms I've borrowed from sociologists and Fanon scholars to describe facets of systemic violence). That alone is enough to begin differentiating a right-wing action from the violence we might see used by leftist organizations (typically elsewhere in the world).

Don Durito said...

I appreciate your visiting here and your remarks - which are truly food for thought for anyone who happens to be reading this.

Don Durito said...

Perhaps, but I just haven't seen their influence in any other part of the world:
http://jacobinmag.com/winter-2011/why-we-loved-the-zapatistas/

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