Sunday, February 08, 2015

The hidden benefit of nonviolence: Down with bosses and up with democracy

In the birthing days of the Soviet Union, the evils of the elites were obvious--pampered royals lived in opulence while workers and peasants lived in squalor. Hard work was rewarded with poverty and repression (Ackerman & DuVall, 2000). The bloody revolution, however, replaced one set of royal bosses with a different set of communist bosses. Dissent was tolerated by neither czarist Russia nor Marxist Leninist USSR. Freedom was a concept unknown to most living under either regime.
How could this be? The overlords were overthrown in the name of the workers, of the farmers, of the peasants who worked the land to give everyone sustenance.

Ah, but who claimed all the credit for the revolution? The violent vanguard. They took the power by gun and kept it by gun--helped by a state apparatus of spies, servile law enforcement, brutal interrogators, corrupt judges, and harsh gulags. Workers were anything but free, were emphatically not running any dictatorship of the proletariat, as claimed.

Lucky that never happened in the US, where the revolution was also violent, right?

Well, we are still talking about rich white men, mostly slaveowners, so let's not get all that gooey, please. It is true that American white men did a reasonably good job of freeing white men from King George. It is not true that the American Revolution did a single thing for African Americans (even though the first one shot dead, Crispus Attucks, of Boston Massacre fame, was free black, certainly doing little for him). Indeed, the Constitution defined them as 60 percent human. Tell me that's not shameful.

Similarly, the American Revolution did nothing but grease the Bad News Skids for Native Americans. If anything, it hastened the loss of land and rights for the original people. In fact, those first ones were the last ones to gain rights that white Americans have taken for granted for more than 220 years. I mean, it wasn't until 11 August 1978 that Native Americans were legally able to practice their own religion. So much for the separation of church and state applying to all.

So in many ways the liberation by gun of the United States was not entirely the shining example of freedom it might have been if the revolution had been nonviolent, but that is a moot historical question in most ways. It was what it was and it is what it is. The primary point is that even the most well intentioned and noble violent insurrections leave the power with the elites who take credit for waging the war. When a revolution is nonviolent, there is no guarantee of blissful perfection but the claim of power by the gun=freedom is missing.

I don't want to honor a Washington, a Ho Chi Minh, a Vladimir Lenin, a Fidel Castro, or any other violent power-grabber. Give me instead the people of Chile, rising up to nonviolently overthrow Augusto Pinochet, or the people of India evicting the British empire and Gandhi refusing all political position. These are the imperfect but far more egalitarian revolutions (Tell it, Sinead!).

Nonviolence is a flop. The only bigger flop is violence. (Joan Baez)

The stats gathered by Freedom House researchers (hardly a lefty or pacifist group!) bear this out. Wage your revolution with nonviolence and your chances for democracy, human rights, and civil rights improve dramatically.


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

Karatnycky, Adrian; Ackerman, Peter (2005). How freedom is won: From civic resistance to durable democracy. New York: Freedom House.

No comments: