Ward Churchill, Peter Gelderloos and others have argued that the option of using violence needs to be available to movements fighting entrenched power, even alongside mass participation in nonviolent tactics like occupations and strikes. “Why tie our hands behind our backs?” they ask. Occasions may arise, they insist, when repressive police and military violence require that the movement be ready to defend itself with specific and strategic violence.
I’ve publicly debated Ward Churchill on these questions, and I agree they deserve careful thought.
I see them as important questions during a stage of mass political and economic noncooperation in a movement — stage four in my five-stage framework. But I’ve also argued that violent tactics have little merit when a movement is still relatively small, in stage three, which I call “confrontation.” That’s the stage when movements are able to mount demonstrations of thousands, but not hundreds of thousands. Because stage four is far more massive than stage three, it can use tactics like large-scale strikes and prolonged occupations. Egypt in 2011 showed what stage four can look like, and Tahrir Square did include participants’ use of property destruction and defensive violence against security forces. Does Egypt offer a model of what other activists should have in mind when they reach stage four in their own country?
“Isn’t this a revolution?”
Advocates of a so-called “diversity of tactics” need to consider the 1968 French civil insurrection. In April of that year, President Charles de Gaulle, a favorite of the 1 percent, was in more trouble than he knew. Under spring’s quiet surface were millions of resentful French workers. Then, in May, students in Paris began demonstrating. They were brutally attacked by police and set up barricades on the West Bank to defend themselves. Four out of five Parisians were said to be immediately sympathetic to the students.
The students’ confrontation was the spark that was needed; in a few weeks, 10 million workers were on strike — that was two-thirds of the labor force!
As activists spread the insurrection across France, some towns declared themselves liberated zones and began developing alternative institutions. Workplaces were being occupied; gravediggers even occupied cemeteries, and the dancers of the Folies Bergere took over their theater.
While doing interviews a year later, I talked with the deputy director of the largest Renault factory. He told me that he — but not the director — was allowed by the workers to tour the occupied factory. He observed workers cleaning and oiling the machinery of the assembly lines, and, puzzled, asked why in a revolutionary moment the workers were taking such good care of the place.
“Because,” a worker smiled, “tomorrow it may be ours!”
Reports spread that young soldiers based inside France would be unwilling to follow de Gaulle’s orders to repress the movement and that he was preparing to bring in troops stationed elsewhere to do the job. In the meantime, students continued their sometimes violent demonstrations in the Latin Quarter and defended their barricades. Workers joined them in all-night assemblies in concert halls and university buildings, trying to build agreement on a vision of a truly democratic and egalitarian France.
As the weeks went on, the state-owned media filled the television with pictures of street battles and barricades in flames. The clear intention was to influence the French middle classes to side with the state and take advantage of the lack of a student-worker manifesto that could articulate a role for the middle classes “after the revolution.”
Finally, de Gaulle went on the offensive by making concessions and dissolving the National Assembly, declaring a date for new elections. Union leaders who were worried about grassroots democracy worked to calm their members and bring them back to the electoral fold. The insurrection lost its momentum. The 1 percent won.
The French insurrection happened in an advanced industrial society with a large middle class, making it a case worth studying for people in societies like that. (See the article at the Global Nonviolent Action Database, or a longer narrative in chapter two of my newly republished book, Toward a Living Revolution.)
It’s interesting that, considering the degree of threat to the status quo, the regime killed few people. De Gaulle was probably constrained by worry about which way the middle class would go. Initial middle class sympathy toward the students (stirred by police violence in stage three) was eroded by the televised images that daily exaggerated student violence.
From my interviews I could understand how sensible it seemed to students in the streets to use violence. Still, when I drew the bigger picture, the conclusion seemed clear: Violent tactics, even in stage four, were a mistake. The students overlooked the importance to de Gaulle of the middle class as a power bloc, not to mention the reported lack of enthusiasm for street fighting among many workers and the possible confrontation waiting in the wings with battle-ready French soldiers based outside the country.
I learned a revealing story about a moment in the Left Bank when students were beginning to drag a car to a barricade that they were building at the end of a street. The plan was to ignite the barricade, once built, and to fuse the elements together for strength. Suddenly, the owner of the car they were dragging came out of his house. He was furious. In those days, it took years of saving for a worker to buy a car, and his was being dragged away to be burnt.
The students paused, unsure what to do. The worker joined them, arguing to save his car. Finally, the students’ debate was settled by the cry: “Let’s take the car, friends, isn’t this a revolution?”
The path to self-defeat is to refuse to revolutionize the means of revolution. Stuck in the romance of the French tradition, those students burned a worker’s car in the name of respect for workers.
Size does matter
In their study of 323 major violent and nonviolent campaigns between 1900 and 2006, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan found that the sheer size of a resistance movement was correlated with a likelihood of success. The larger the mobilization, the more likely the movement was to achieve its goals.
One reason why movements that chose nonviolent means were twice as likely to win against dictators, occupiers and imperialists was that they were able to mobilize larger numbers of participants. In Chenoweth and Stephan’s Why Civil Resistance Works, we find a list of the 25 largest struggles; the largest was four and a half million Chinese against the Japanese occupation. Twenty of these largest campaigns were nonviolent, and five were violent. The nonviolent ones had a 70 percent success rate, whereas the violent ones had a 40 percent success rate.
Chenoweth and Stephan’s findings shed light on one of the puzzles that came up at the Peace News Camp I joined a few weeks ago in Britain. In a panel I posed this challenge: If advocates of a diversity of tactics believe the approach is more effective in winning, why don’t they simply start a campaign tackling a comparable target and show us how to win? It’s popular in the U.S. these days to target banks, for example. Why not create a guerrilla campaign to force a bank to yield to a demand, and let us compare the results with disciplined nonviolent campaigns?
After the discussion, several people said of advocates of a diversity of tactics, “They don’t campaign; they just mess with others’ campaigns because that’s where the people are.”
At a point when the civil rights movement was a truly mass movement in the U.S., in the mid-1960s, I was teaching at the Martin Luther King School of Social Change. One of my favorite students, an African American from the South, liked to tease me. “You’ll see,” she said. “When I get my field placement in North Philly you’ll find out that the people are way tired of this nonviolence shit.”
Two months into her field placement she came to see me. “How’s it working out?” I asked.
“Oh, they’re plenty mad,” she said, “but then when I bring up the possibility of some strategic violence alongside the demonstrations they say to me, ‘What you doin,’ child, tryin’ to get us killed?‘ ” — again, where the people are.
Nonviolent mass mobilization offers comparative safety in numbers that a diversity of tactics threatens. Numbers don’t guarantee success — nothing does — but numbers do make it more likely that key constituencies like the French middle classes will remain favorable to the movement, and increase the probability of success.
Where the power comes from
The disagreement about violence and a diversity of tactics may come from diverging understandings of power. I believe that the 1 percent (and other oppressive forces) get their power through the compliance of those below them, the willingness of others to follow the script they’ve been given. What shatters their power is others’ refusal to obey.
As SNCC staff member Bernard Lafayette explained it to me in the 1960s, a society is like a house. The roof is white rule, and it rests on the foundation of black compliance. When the foundation crumbles, the roof falls. It doesn’t matter how many guns and tanks are piled up there on the roof. When the foundation crumbles, the roof falls anyway.
If a diversity of tactics approach leads us away from strategies that build that power, we don’t need it.
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A prolific writer and speaker, Rev. Deats strengthened grassroots movements by leading nonviolent action trainings in conflict zones around the world.
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