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Nonviolent Revolution: A Contradiction in Terms?

Many assume that bringing capitalism to an end will require violence. But workers can paralyze the capitalist class without firing a shot.

Revolution is often equated with violence. William Morris addressed this misconception nicely in ‘How We Live, and How We Might Live’, where he explained that:

‘The word Revolution, which we Socialists are so often forced to use, has a terrible sound in most people's ears, even when we have explained to them that it does not necessarily mean a change accompanied by riot and all kinds of violence, and cannot mean a change made mechanically and in the teeth of opinion by a group of men who have somehow managed to seize on the executive power for the moment’.

And 130 years later most still assume that revolution necessarily is accompanied by violence, and that a ‘nonviolent revolution’ is a contradiction in terms.

The Ted offensive

In an article published last year, the radial political cartoonist Ted Rall puts forth the basic argument so often used to defend violent revolution:

‘The privileged classes won’t relinquish their privileges, power or wealth voluntarily. They will use their control over the police and the military . . . in order to crush any meaningful opposition. They are violent. Their system is violence. Defeating them requires greater violence. Nothing less results in revolution’ (‘Not a Revolution, Just an Old-fashioned Coup’).

Rall insists that nonviolence is ineffective for a revolutionary movement and historically unprecedented, as he notes in his criticism of the Occupy movement in the same article:

 ‘At the height of the Occupy movement during the fall of 2011, many knee-jerk pacifists, besotted with the post-1960s religion of militant nonviolence (in spite of its repeatedly proven ineffectiveness), agreed that radical transformation — revolution — was necessary in the United States. Yet these liberals also argued that (even though there was no historical precedent) the triumph of the mass of ordinary American workers over the corrupt bankers and their pet politicians could result from purely nonviolent protest’.

Rall actually makes a number of good points in his article, arguing against ‘Western analysts, liberals and even leftists’ who have ‘cheapened the word “revolution”, attaching it to developments that . . . are nothing of the kind’; whereas a true revolution is ‘a vast set of radical transformations in the way that ordinary people live’. ‘You can’t make a revolution without revolutionizing society’, he writes, ‘which requires the complete violent overthrow of the ruling class’.

But is it necessary for him to insist so strongly on the violent nature of this transformation? Is it true that violence is an essential aspect of revolution? Is the use of nonviolent tactics among revolutionaries ineffective and historically unprecedented?

The power of nonviolence?

Nonviolent tactics would seem particularly ill-suited for any movement facing an authoritarian regime armed to the teeth. Here, at least, the arguments in favour of violent revolution would seem persuasive. But an article published in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, titled ‘Drop Your Weapons: When and Why Civil Resistance Works’, argues that even in such situations collective nonviolent resistance can be very effective.

The authors of the article, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan,are hardly revolutionaries: Chenoweth is an academic and Stephan a ‘strategic planner’ for the State Department. And the magazine is pure ‘establishment’; published by the Council on Foreign Relations, an organization that seeks to ‘promote understanding of foreign policy and America’s role in the world’.

Not surprisingly, then, many of the examples of violent and nonviolent movements that the authors examine concern ‘regimes’ that the US government has sought to topple. Far from objecting to this meddling foreign policy, Chenoweth and Stephan simply think that supporting nonviolent movements can be more effective in many cases than backing armed conflict.

In any case, their article begins with some statistics about how ‘campaigns of nonviolent resistance’ have been much more successful against authoritarian regimes than violent movements. They examined ‘323 campaigns’ in the period from 1919 to 2006 – covering ‘all known nonviolent and violent campaigns (each featuring at least 1,000 observed participants) for self-determination, the removal of an incumbent leader, or the expulsion of a foreign occupation’.

The authors found that the ‘campaigns of nonviolent resistance against authoritarian regimes were twice as likely to succeed as violent movements’; and that ‘almost half’ of the nonviolent campaigns examined succeeded in achieving their goals, compared to just 20 percent of the violent ones.

These statistics, as you can see, are vague and the category ‘campaign’ includes every sort of social movement, whether its participants saw themselves as revolutionaries or reformists. But the interesting point to note is that authoritarian regimes often found it difficult to stamp out movements of mass nonviolent resistance despite the armed power of the state.

‘Contrary to conventional wisdom, no social, economic, or political structures have systematically prevented nonviolent campaigns from emerging or succeeding’, the authors argue, adding that, ‘movements that opt for violence often unleash terrible destruction and bloodshed . . . usually without realizing the goals they set out to achieve’.

Disarming a police state

The effectiveness of nonviolence, in the view of the authors, has nothing to do with moral suasion:

‘Civil resistance does not succeed because it melts the hearts of dictators and secret police.  It succeeds because it is more likely than armed struggle to attract a large and more diverse base of participants and impose unsustainable costs on a regime’.

Chenoweth and Stephan list a number of reasons why nonviolent tactics can be so effective.

First of all, nonviolence is a tactic that allows a movement to mobilize a greater number of participants and supporters. In other words, there are fewer ‘barriers to participation’ than in an armed conflict, so a wider stratum of society is more likely to take part. And, needless to say, the larger the movement, the more difficult it is for a government to violently suppress it.

Another factor cited by the authors in favour of nonviolent movements is that they can employ a wider variety of tactics than is possible in an armed movement; not only demonstrations and strikes but other forms of noncooperation that make it clear that the legitimacy of the rulers has dissolved.

The authors point to the example of the Shah of Iran, who ‘had little difficulty neutralizing the Islamist and Marxist-inspired [sic!] guerilla groups’ but when ‘large numbers of oil workers, bazaar merchants, and students engaged in acts of collective nonviolent resistance . . .the regime’s repressive apparatus became overstretched’ and soon thereafter the Shah fled the country.

In other words, what was necessary to defeat a police state is not ‘greater violence’, as Rall seems to think, but the mass power of workers to effectively disarm that apparatus of violence: overwhelming it with numbers, dissolving its legitimacy, and winning over fellow workers ordered to pull the trigger.

Even the most repressive regime relies upon a degree of cooperation and consent from the population. When that legitimacy among the citizenry has dissolved, the state’s use of violence becomes increasingly difficult or even counterproductive. There are numerous examples in recent history alone of seemingly powerful regimes that have collapsed suddenly in the face of mass protest.

This essential point was made by Erica Chenoweth in the 21 August interview with the two authors on National Public Radio: ‘When very large and diverse sectors of society withdraw their cooperation from the opponent government, it's extremely difficult for that government to maintain its hold on control. And the reason is because every power holder is 100 percent reliant on the cooperation, obedience and help of people that reside in its pillars of support - the security forces, the state media, religious authorities, educational elites, business and economic elites and civilian bureaucrats’.

Clearly, Chenoweth is imagining a conflict within the ruling class, where the outcome depends on which side the bulk of the elites decide to back. But a similar dynamic would be at play in a socialist revolution as well. That is, when the majority of the working class withdraws its cooperation from the capitalist class, it would be extremely difficult for that class to maintain its hold on power and its pillars of support will begin to crumble.

The problem for the capitalist class in such a situation would hardly be a lack of military firepower; they would always outgun the workers. But unleashing that force against a rebellious working class could backfire, adding fuel to the fire; or the police and soldiers (workers themselves) might refuse to carry out the orders or turn their guns against the rulers.

Tactics are secondary

As advocates of nonviolence, Chenoweth and Stephan may be nothing more than useful idiots in the eyes of the military-industrial complex that actually runs US foreign policy out of the Pentagon, but they do make some good points about how nonviolent tactics can work against authoritarian regimes as a sort of ‘asymmetric’ conflict.

But, to return to the question of revolution, the debate over violence versus nonviolence, however interesting, is not the primary issue for socialists. We are convinced that the success of a revolution depends on a majority of the working class coming to have an understanding of and desire for socialism. This is the key issue; much more important than the specific tactics socialists employ to surmount this or that obstacle along the way.

Ted Rall seems to suggest that the Occupy movement fell apart as a result of sticking religiously to ineffective nonviolent tactics. But the central problem of that movement had less to do with its nonviolent tactics (which were actually remarkably effective), than its lack of a clear vision of what could replace the unequal capitalist society against which they were protesting. It is hard to see how the use of violent tactics would have compensated for that lack of strategy.

Or, perhaps Rall was trying to say that the Occupy movement failed because it did not set itself the goal of sweeping aside the ruling class (which he says requires violence). But even if that is his argument, it only reveals that Rall is focused exclusively on the ‘negative’ or destructive side of revolution, rather than the new society that replaces the old. In other words, like the Occupy movement he criticizes, Rall doesn’t really have a basic goal or strategy for what is to replace capitalism. It is that absence of a goal that accounts for why movements like Occupy fall apart, not their preference for nonviolence.

Our own goal is clearly the creation of a new classless, borderless, moneyless society of common ownership; a society we call ‘socialism’. And our strategy for achieving this goal is for more and more of our fellow workers to understand and consciously aim for this new form of society, until the point of critical mass is reached where replacing capitalism with socialism is a real, concrete task for the working class. At that point, the question becomes how best to take that final step. And we believe that, once socialism has majority backing, a nonviolent, democratic transformation is possible and preferable.

Violence is an effective means for a minority to hold on to power, or for another minority group to topple them and become the new rulers. But the workers make up the vast majority of society– if not ‘the 99%’, pretty close to it. When the majority of workers are moving steadfastly toward socialism, the violence of the minority ruling class would be unable to stem the tide, at least not for long.