An article by George Lakey is circulating around the Internet under the headline, “The More Violence, The Less Revolution.” While title is a quotation from 1930s radical Bart de Ligt, the thrust of the piece is to read Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s large-scale study Why Civil Resistance Works (website) under this headline. Chenoweth and Stephan do make a serious and wide-ranging attempt to measure the outcomes of tactical choices made by movements, and both their data and conclusions should be read widely among people interested in changing their societies. Chenoweth and Stephan’s expansive category of civil resistance is actually one that spans across existing internal debates in the Occupy Movement (and earlier generations of tactical debates in the global justice movement and elsewhere). Vitally, their analysis of what conditions make civil resistance successful can help us focus our tactical conversations in a very productive direction.
George Lakey, while an opponent of both violent tactics and property destruction, issued a strong rejoinder to Chris Hedges’ The Cancer in Occupy, arguing: “The issue of the appropriateness of property destruction and/or violence is, like any other aspect of community organizing, not settled by blanket statements or posturing but by getting in there and dialoguing, over and over again. Advocates of nonviolent action need to learn from the Civil Rights movement and the field of community organizing in this way—there really aren’t any shortcuts.” Lakey has developed a nuanced, historically informed position on nonviolence. His strategic approach to thinking about nonviolence that has been surprisingly contagious internationally. And Lakey is willing to have difficult conversations with people who profoundly disagree with him, to his credit.
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Surveying across the data, I would say: The shortage of nonviolent social revolutions places the burden on advocates of nonviolence to explain the methods by which large amounts of property without violence to explain how this will happen. On the other hand, the shortage of violent democratic revolutions places the burden on advocates of a military conflict to explain how their methods will allow for a participatory democracy to emerge. No one can look at the history of the past century and point to consistent success of their method at achieving revolutionary transformations.
(Looking across this panorama, the heavy weight of external intervention, often by the United States, becomes a crucial factor. Unless we can stop the next Clinton from strong-arming or overthrowing the next Aristide, the conversation about how to start transformative revolutions is irrelevant for important parts of the world. From the positive side, movements seeking social transformation have the challenge of creating enduring new orders that can resist that kind of external pressure, something that has historically happened through limits on democratic freedom. Civil resistance as the defense against such coups, which succeeded in 2002 in Venezuela and 2008 in Bolivia, could alter this balance.)