Friday, February 06, 2015

Finding the cleavage, applying the leverage

In 1968 in Czechoslovakia, ushering in Prague Spring, Alexander Dubček famously called for "Socialism with a human face." Faceless tanks from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and its Warsaw Pact ran down democracy activists in the streets of Prague and rolled Dubček out to pasture. So much for the humanity of that brand of socialism.

In 1980 the democracy activists in Poland took a different approach. They made only "industrial" demands, not political ones (Ackerman & DuVall, 2000). They saw more clearly from the disastrous results in 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Prague that calling for the reform of the political system would be interpreted as revolution and would be summarily and remorselessy crushed.

What was so perfect about the Polish experiment was that they stuck to their primary demand for collective bargaining rights--only wanting an independent union in a satellite country to an empire that built its rhetoric around union rights, workers as heroes, and the mighty power of the working class. This harnessed the trumpeted values of the oppressor, even a codeword for leftist action--"Solidarity"--creating an opening, however small, that we see again and again in successful nonviolent struggles.
This approach can also reveal the hidden cleavages between ideologues who really intend to slaughter all opponents and more realistic, pragmatic members of the ruling class who just want to maintain their enjoyable lives of privilege. Once those cleavages are found, the best nonviolent movements find the wedge issues and pointed tactics that exploit that heretofore masked fault line and they drive the wedge hard.

Poles were philosophical about it all. Supposedly, in the 1950s, the joke there was "Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite" (quoted by John Kenneth Galbraith). It took trial and error to find the wedge issue and exploit that in order to stop the system from exploiting them.

Some day, we hope, humankind will study nonviolence more than violence and will prepare for nonviolent struggle more than for war. When we see that we will see these strategies applied much faster, much more often, with greater, quicker, less costly and more frequent success. The Solidarity activists reinvented some of what Gandhi did in several of his struggles, beginning in South Africa in 1906. They recreated the dynamics that the US Civil Rights movement created in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and the 1960 Nashville sit-in movement.

These methods are not rocket science, but for them to overtake and surpass the methods of violence it will take education, investment, and much more ongoing preparation. Anything less is a disservice to humanity.


Ackerman, P., & DuVall, J. (2000). A force more powerful: A century of nonviolent conflict. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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