In the discussion within the Occupy movement on whether violence is necessary for making change in the United States, the debate has so far conflated three of the movement’s possible goals. Are we talking about using violence to produce regime change? Or do we really mean “regime change with democratic institutions following the change”? Or is what we really mean “regime change followed by democracy in which the 1 percent lose their grip on power”?
Movements have sometimes produced regime change with no real democracy and the same 1 percent still in charge. The American Revolution did that: King George was booted out and the resulting government, to its credit highly innovative, was still not a democracy for women, the enslaved, and working class people. A couple of centuries later, the 1 percent are still running the United States. A number of other anti-colonial struggles had a similar result.
Many regimes are so oppressive that people will give their lives to change them, even without guarantees that the new regime will be a whole lot better. But as we consider what we want out of our sacrifices to the cause, we should ask: What’s the track record of movements that depend on violence to overthrow their regimes?
Political scientists (and Waging Nonviolence contributors) Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan analyzed 323 attempts at regime change between 1900 and 2006. They were curious about the comparative success of violent and nonviolent campaigns, among other things. They found that violent campaigns succeeded 26 percent of the time, and that nonviolent campaigns succeeded 53 percent of the time.
The good news is that regimes can be overthrown, even though dictators bring out the police and army to try to stay in power. The bad news is that the people didn’t always win; when they used violence they won only one time in four. They did, however, double their chances of success when they used a nonviolent strategy.
In our research for the Global Nonviolent Action Database, my students and I found a number of cases in which movements first tried violence, found it didn’t work, and then switched over to nonviolent struggle and won.
Researcher Anthony Phalen tells us, for example, that the Latvians tried guerrilla war against domination by the Soviet Union for years without success, then switched to a nonviolent strategy and succeeded.
In El Salvador, the military dictatorship of Hernandez Martinez had been in power for ten years and in 1944 was still strong enough to defeat a military revolt. Researcher Aden Tedla writes that university students then decided to try nonviolent struggle, even making a special point of the nonviolence, calling their campaign huelga de brazos caídos (strike with arms at your sides). The students catalyzed a massive insurgency, and won.
In the early 1970s, the United States got worried about Chile’s democratically-elected government led by left-leaning Salvador Allende. By 1973 the CIA joined the Chilean military to throw Allende out and install General Augusto Pinochet in his place. An armed struggle then developed against Pinochet’s military dictatorship, but it was unable to expel him. Researchers Shandra Bernath-Plaistad and Max Rennebohm describe what worked: a nonviolent people’s struggle succeeded in ousting Pinochet in 1988. The movement succeeded even though Pinochet used the existence of the Chilean armed struggle as a justification to use violence against the nonviolent campaign.
It says a lot about people’s flexibility that, even after losing lives in a violent struggle for change, they can be pragmatic and switch to something that works better. There is more and more evidence that, other things being equal, nonviolent action is more powerful than violent action.
In Serbia in 2000, the young people of Otpor! overthrew dictator Milosevic nonviolently, but failed to establish a solid democracy. Egyptians are working on that same problem right now, tackling a military that seems to want to be the new Mubarak.
Perhaps this problem can be solved with violence. Maybe movements forcing regime change using violent means are only half as effective as nonviolent ones, but what if they make up for their deficiencies by increasing the likelihood that, when violent movements win, democracy more often follows the change? In fact, Chenoweth and Stephan found the opposite.
They found it much more likely that nonviolent campaigns would lead to democratic societies after the regime was forced out. They also found that those societies where movements used nonviolent action were less likely to end up in civil war.
I interviewed South Koreans about their 1986–87 nonviolent campaign to overthrow the dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan, who was one of a series of dictators backed by the U.S. government. For the first three years of that decade, the government tried to “cleanse” the society of activists, purging or arresting thousands of professors, teachers, pastors, journalists and students. That wave of repression so aroused public hostility that Chun Doo Hwan felt forced to remove military police from campuses and pardon political prisoners.
Instead of restricting themselves to complaints that the government was making only small changes, the movement took advantage of its opportunity. Labor unions created a pro-democracy alliance and students organized themselves nationally. Action built on action, bringing in churches, farmers and civil society groups. Participation in mass rallies rose to 700,000.
The threatened government once again tried a wave of repression, including torture. When word got out that a student was tortured to death, ordinary Koreans joined the radical opposition and momentum increased. Hunger strikes followed and even more massive demonstrations. After a student hit by tear gas bomb fragments died, a million people marched—including middle-class elements who had held back before then.
People power put South Korea solidly on the road to democracy, reflected in 1997 when an opposition candidate, Kim Dae Jung, became president for the first time in Korean history.
South Korea, however, is one of the many examples of regime change in which democratic institutions replaced dictatorship but the same 1 percent continued to hold power. Decades of experiences like that in the 19th and 20th centuries, in which countries liberalized their governance under the pressure of largely nonviolent social movements while the 1 percent hung on to dominance, encouraged communist vanguards to assert that they had the solution to the problem of the super-rich.
A number of the movements that followed the Leninist path of armed struggle in the Soviet Union did indeed eliminate the power of the 1 percent in their countries. However, they didn’t establish democracy. In fact, their improved efficiency as authoritarians over the previous regimes often shrank the already-small space for individual freedom. There were sexual minorities, for example, who under the new regime looked back with nostalgia to the “good old days” of dictatorships that largely left them alone.
Actually, I can’t think of any countries where movements successfully
- used violence to get regime change
- and established democracy afterward
- and curbed the dominant power of the 1 percent.
The only movements that established democracy and curbed the dominant power of the 1 percent were those that used nonviolent revolution to overthrow the governing power. I’ve so far written about two: Norway and Sweden. Both countries are works in progress; there are visionary Norwegians and Swedes who would like them to go farther in refining democracy and reducing the power of their economic elites, though to a U.S. activist they have already gone a long way beyond us. (Free higher education, anyone?)
Bottom line: for those around the world who are committed to change and are considering violence as the way to get it, a track record is still a track record. Movements relying on violence were only half as likely as nonviolent movements to win a new regime, and even then didn’t do as well as their nonviolent cousins in establishing democracy in the new society. There’s no reason to link “violence” with that fine word “radical”—especially if by radical you mean democratic and egalitarian. Yes, violence has accomplished a lot of change in the world, but its track record is mediocre when it comes to the goals of the Occupy movement.
When he wrote The Conquest of Violence in the 1930s, Bart de Ligt didn’t have the data amassed by Chenoweth and Stephan, or the GNAD’s student researchers at Swarthmore, Georgetown and Tufts. But that Dutch revolutionary still got it right when we wrote, “The more violence, the less revolution.”
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